Features I by I 20.05.17

Industrial legend Drew McDowall on Coil and confronting global crisis

Drew McDowall is legendary for his contributions to experimental greats Coil and Psychic TV, but over the past few years he’s forged his own path, releasing equally boundary-crushing solo music. Ahead of the release of his new album Unnatural Channel, McDowall talks Chris Zaldua about finding his artistic voice and today’s turbulent political times.

Drew McDowall has probably worked on some of your favorite records, whether you know it or not. For more than 30 years, the Scottish artist has been an key player in the global experimental and industrial music underground, primarily through his work with legendary British avant-pop act Coil, with whom he worked for most of the ‘90s.

In 2015, McDowall released his first proper solo record, Collapse, via the weird and wonderful US label Dais. On May 27, Dais will release McDowall’s second solo album, Unnatural Channel, an eerie, otherworldly vision of industrial music’s future that connects squarely with its past. As McDowall himself describes: “There’s no delineation between what I did with Coil [in the past] and what I’m doing now. There’s no line.”

FACT caught up with McDowall to learn more about his three decades of experience in experimental music, his process of becoming a solo artist, and why he’s so invigorated by New York and the current crop of experimental and industrial musicians.

There’s no delineation between what I did with Coil then and what I’m doing now

Have you been producing solo material your entire life?

I started making music when I was probably around 16 — I got my first synth and first reel-to-reel, and started making tapes of weird synth experiments. Then I was in a band, The Poems, with my ex-wife Rose, who went on to do Strawberry Switchblade. It was kind of post-punk, experimental, using lots of tape loops, textures, and badly played instruments.

We didn’t know what we were doing, but that wasn’t going to stop us. As punk was very quickly becoming almost calcified, we were very much influenced by artists such as Suicide and Throbbing Gristle, like many others at the time.

Then you ended up in Psychic TV?

Very briefly. I always get credit for being in Psychic TV — which, you know, I’m pretty happy about [laughs] — but it was one tour and a couple of side projects with Genesis [P-Orridge]. But I guess it’s part of my resume now. I said to Genesis, “People keep saying that I was in Psychic TV, but it was such a brief tenure.” Then she said “You were in Psychic TV!” So I’ve got her blessing and that’s that.

How did you get involved with Coil?

After the brief period with Psychic TV, two of my close friends first introduced me to John Balance, and through John I met Peter [Christopherson], Sleazy. This was probably ‘85, ‘86. We became really close friends. Long before any collaborations, we became friends mainly due to shared interests, very much a similar mindset and approach to the world.

Our first collaboration was around 1988. It never saw the light of day. It was just our insane take on the music that was really inspiring us at the time – acid house, techno, stuff that hadn’t really gone mainstream. There were these grimy clubs, the size of a living room, and you’d fit a couple of hundred people in them, everyone going to strange places in the same space.

We kind of wanted to do an homage to that — not very serious, we weren’t going to do anything with it. We ended up with a couple of nutty pieces that were very quickly shelved. It was fun to do, but nothing we wanted anyone to hear.

You worked with Coil for most of the ‘90s, correct?

Yes — before I actually became a full-time member, I did a few one-off collaborations that were released: the remakes of The Snow — and the first record that I was officially part of was NASA-Arab.

Back then, I was experimenting, but nothing was ever released. I’d make music at home and work on my process. I worked very slowly. When I was a member of Coil, I started some things that didn’t really fit into what Coil was doing or any of the other side projects that we had, so I did some one-off pieces under the name Screwtape, a couple of tracks on some compilations. During that period, Coil was enough to satisfy anything that I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I started to wind down my involvement in Coil that I really started to develop my solo efforts.

How did Collapse come together?

I hadn’t really intended to record anything. I had begun playing live sets but never really enjoyed the process, though a few people had been encouraging me. I had done some collaborative live performances with other projects, and I was getting deeper and deeper into explorations of modular synthesis. I’ve actually been involved in modular synths since I was 16. But playing live, I was so uncomfortable about getting up on stage, and just doing solo modular… [laughs].

I enjoyed the “walking on thin ice” aspect of it. It really felt like that, because almost everything was improvised. I wasn’t using any samples. Everything was just balanced on a knife edge, it could have gone disastrously. And I really enjoyed that. I thought that was the last thing I would enjoy, but I just got on stage and went in, and it turned out to be enormous fun. Then, I met Ryan Martin from Dais, and he said: “If you ever want to do an LP for Dais, let us know.” Every now and again, he would hit me up, and ask if I wanted to do that LP. And eventually, I said “I think I do want to do it.”

That record felt like it connected the past with the future. It’s clearly an “industrial” record — it’s powerful, intense in the body, but it’s all about texture, which I found fascinating. Is that a product of working with the modular?

At the time I recorded Collapse, I didn’t want to do something that was purely modular. I really appreciate what you said — something that connects the past with the future — because I’ve always been cognizant and respectful of my own history, and I understand that there’s a reason that people are interested in what I do.

There’s no delineation between what I did with Coil then and what I’m doing now. There’s no line: “That’s what I was doing then; this is what I’m doing now.” It always felt like part of the same process, part of the same project. Those obsessions, both musically and conceptually, never went away. So it was a way of furthering, developing, and refining that process. There was also a sense of unfinished business. There were things that I played around with, back then, and while I was happy with what I did, it could be looked at again and re-purposed. But I also didn’t want to be known as a “modular guy” [laughs].

It’s interesting enough for me, but ultimately, I think that the tools used to make something are only really important for the artist. I don’t think that should become something for the listener. I’ve been blown away by people who’ve made incredible music on their iPads. So there’s no straight modular. There was piano, violin, field recordings, a bunch of acoustic sources. Everything’s been processed and re-edited. Even though I have a huge modular setup, it’s just another part of the textural makeup for me. One of the things that I hope comes through in that record is that I don’t want listeners to be able to tell what anything is or how it was recorded [laughs].

Photography by: Gillian Bowling

“Crisis” isn’t a good enough word to describe what’s happening with the world

When you were working with Coil, were you also writing solo music? Or did that come later?

Back then, I was experimenting, but nothing was ever released. I’d make music at home and work on my process. I worked very slowly. When I was a member of Coil, I started some things that didn’t really fit into what Coil was doing or any of the other side projects that we had, so I did some one-off pieces under the name Screwtape, a couple of tracks on some compilations. During that period, Coil was enough to satisfy anything that I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I started to wind down my involvement in Coil that I really started to develop my solo efforts.

Was the process similar for Unnatural Channel?

Same inherent underlying philosophy, but the methodologies themselves changed. Different techniques, different ways of approaching a sound, but with the same idea that I wanted it to be hard to identify what anything is. If you go back to Coil, I think it’s the same thing. When you listen to any Coil record, it’s very hard to figure out what’s going on, which is exactly one of my favorite feelings in life, not just in music. You know, “what the fuck is going on?” [laughs]

I really enjoyed the vocal pieces on the new record. That was a nice touch.

One of the things I wanted to have on the record was vocal textures. I was interested in something vocalized — something trying to break through and communicate meaning. And there’s a couple of tracks where I feel like something is trying to “become” a voice, then failing or becoming submerged. It’s part of the same project as Collapse, this idea that, in a global sense, everything was thrown into sharp relief last year, with what’s happening with the election and in Europe. “Crisis” isn’t a good enough word to describe what’s happening with the world. There’s a horror in the way that we are living right now. Some people are only peripherally aware of it, but some people have a sense of dread and horror at what’s happening in the world.

Does what’s happening in the world today remind you of when industrial music was beginning to sprout as a scene or a sound?

With what was going on in the UK back then – the rise of the right, Thatcherism aligned with Reaganism – that was fertile ground for industrial and punk. But what we’re seeing now is way off the charts. I think we’re in a state of catastrophe right now. Looking at what’s happening in Chechnya — campaigns to exterminate LGBTQ people — in 2017, that should elicit massive global horror. But it’s registering barely a whisper.

It felt, to me, in 2016, that we were being drowned by language, especially during the [US] election, that whole process. I’m the last person in the world to say that we need less opinion in the world, but there was an overwhelming white noise of language, of opinion, this hall of mirrors, that we were being drowned in language without understanding. It seemed like language had failed us, even though it is all we have, our only means of communicating. It felt like this idea of language itself, one of things that make us human, had failed us. So what does that make us?

That’s part of what I wanted to explore on this record. The idea, when I asked Roxy [Farman, vocalist of Wetware] to do some vocal textures on a couple of the tracks, I specifically said “No lyrics!” And when she turned up to record, she said “I’m gonna do lyrics.” That’s one thing I love about Roxy — she cannot be told what to do.

One of the things I love about this process, going back to modulars, is the lack of control. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it works you. So when Roxy showed up with words to do the tracks, I said “OK, there you go.”

Have you lived in New York for some time?

I moved here in 1998, coming up on 20 years.

It seems as if experimental music in New York has crystallized in the past five-ish years. There’s a real surge of new energy, new artists, people working together, and you’ve been a major part of that. Are you feeling that?

Oh, it’s absolutely incredible what’s happening in New York. It’s really taken focus over the last five years or so. Take someone like Margaret Chardiet, Pharmakon. Her new LP is one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in ages. You’re seeing someone who is absolutely at the top of the game, in full control of her artistic process. There’s many different strands, people who have been working on their process for many years, but it’s finally crystallizing as you said. And it’s incredibly inspiring. New York is just such an exciting place to be right now. As much as it is a challenge for everyone that lives here, being exposed to what’s going on on an almost daily basis. It’s a really good place to be. And the challenge is good. You can’t be lazy [laughs].

There’s a wonderful shared influence. No one’s copying each other’s work, but we’re all bathing in the same water, breathing in the same air, and you really see those cross-currents of influence that I find to be invaluable.

It’s similar to what’s happening here in the Bay Area, a lot of this new, contemporary experimental and industrial music is being produced by women, by queer people, and by people of color.

Yes. I love that. For so long, industrial music was white men, except for a couple of notable examples. And it’s incredibly inspiring to see so many women, queer people, people of color being a part of that process and conversation, not being an exception. They’re simply part of the scene.

I hate when I go to a show and — especially in New York, there’s no excuse for this — the entire bill is 100% white men. Come on. Really? These errors of omission become increasingly important. And if you live in New York, or San Francisco, or London, or Berlin, there is no excuse.

People who have diverse backgrounds and experiences are injecting much-needed energy into experimental and industrial music. I feel we’re entering a whole new world.

There’s no question. You’re absolutely right. And of course, these people have always been making challenging, interesting music. They’re finally getting the recognition for what they’re doing, and it’s becoming part of this culture. It’s invigorated what we’re all doing. What we’re seeing right now in industrial, noise — I’m not even comfortable with those terms, but regardless — we’re seeing cross-feed from all kinds of genres.

Yves Tumor’s LP that came out on PAN is one of the best things I’ve heard in years. Such a fluid mixing of genres, it’s totally uncategorizable. I think we’re living in an incredible time right now for experimental music. There’s a global community of freaks and weirdos that are all communicating, all getting in touch with each other. There’s a wonderful cross-pollination going on that makes the culture just something really exceptional and special.

Read next: Pharmakon on the brute noise of Contact and panic attacks at planetariums



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