excerpt by Charles Neal
Coil was conceived by John Balance in 1982 as a concurrent project with Psychic TV, with whom he was working, playing bass guitar, vibes and various Tibetan instruments. In 1984 he began concentrating full time on Coil together with the co-founder of Psychic TV, Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson. In addition to his role in TG and Psychic TV, Christopherson was also a member of the Hipgnosis design group who executed covers for many 'supergroups' of the seventies, including Led Zeppelin, Yes and Pink Floyd. John Balance has previously worked with David Tibet and Fritz Haaman in Current 93. On the Coil album Scatology, they are variously joined by Clint Ruin and Gavin Friday of Virgin Prunes. Coil have also written the soundtrack to the feature film The Angelic Conversation, directed by Derek Jarman, while the video for their version of Tainted Love is on permanent display at The Museum Of Modern Art in New York. In 1986, Coil released a mini-LP with Boyd Rice, and in 1987 an LP entitled Horse Rotorvator.
What is Coil?
Sleazy: Loosely, it's what we do musically. We do other things apart from music but it is the term for our musical experiments. Although it's basically me and John, we do get other people to help as well. In that way, I suppose it's like Psychic TV regarding the set-up and collaborative aspects. Coil is also a code. A hidden universal. A key for which the whole does not exist, a spell, a spiral. A serpents SHt around a female cycle. A whirlwind in a double helix. Electricity and elementals, atonal noise and brutal poetry. A vehicle for obsessions. Kabbulah and Khaus. Thanatos and Thelema. Archangels and Antichrists. Truth and Deliberation. Traps and disorientation. Infantile, inbuilt disobedience.
Where is the term Coil derived from?
J Balance: I chose it on instinct and since then I've found that
it actually means a noise. And there are things like the spiral,
the electrical coil and contraception. The spiral is a repeating
micro/macrocosmic form. From DNA to spiral galaxies. A primal
symbol. lt's a nice little word.
What is the significance behind the title of the album Scatology?
Sleazy: Scatology in the medical sense is an obsession with human shit, or as the old fashioned dictionaries used to say, "An obsession with animal lusts and base instincts". So it's a combination of those two.
Why do you feel that's important to incorporate in the title?
Sleazy: In as much as Scatology is more to be listened to as entertainment the titles of those records normally try to attract people in a slightly outrageous way and at the same time, give some indication of the atmosphere of the record. I think it's a good title, and a lot of the songs on the record refer, either in their lyric or in their moods, to the most base of man's instincts. It seemed quite appropriate. It is what Dali in 'The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali' calls "The Humanism of the Arsehole".
What do you see as the importance behind a ritual?
Sleazy: Most people's lives are basically devoid of anything that adds meaning. That sounds so patronising to say, but I just think that the fulfilment I get from doing things that have no immediate everyday need while at the same time fulfilling other needs, certainly indicates to me that it would be interesting for other people to try them too. And you can only use yourself as an example for how you think other people should live - rather than saying in the way that religions do, "You must do this", or whatever.
Is it important for the ritual to be designed by the person that practises it?
Sleazy: I don't think so, millions of people benefit from catholic rituals.
J Balance: Or The Japanese Tea Rituals. It's the Zen philosophy that every movement means something. I think that way of living is far richer and it gives them an awareness of what and where they are. But ritual in the West is monopolised by the church, especially in Europe and the United Kingdom. People carry out rituals all the time, the English parlour obsessions with table turning, clairvoyents and wishing wells. All these exist and are practiced, but people seem to be somehow ashamed of them and would rather be represented by the church. I suppose that's because it's a rich organisation with ostentatious shows of power and wealth.
How would something like the Japanese Tea Ritual differ from something that the church has organised?
Sleazy: They're not at all different in what they achieve in the person. Where they differ is that the organised church has exploited its knowledge of ritual to control people and enhance their own political end. Certainly in this country in the last thousand years the church has been a political machine that has done what it has for profit and for the advancement of the people in control. And I think it's a pity that the church leaders have exploited their position that way because it has fucked up a lot of people in Northern Ireland, the whole of South America, Spain and most of the Far East.
J Balance: To take a blatant example like the Aztecs, their whole society was controlled by priests who knew the language and knew the way to stop the sun from dying, and so they had complete control over every member of the population. If people didn't do certain things, they believed they'd die. The system was highly developed, very brutal and based on human sacrifice. But they believed if the Gods didn't get their blood, then the sun would not rise and the world would end. And it's just the same here except it's far more insidious and hidden.
Sleazy: All that you really need for your own rituals to be valid is a belief in their abilities. The only problem is that it's easy to have self doubt about what you're doing. And if you have a body of other people doing a ritual that somebody else has designed, then it's more easy to believe that it might have some power.
Is it possible to use rituals for negative purposes, to bring out evil or destructive things?
J Balance: Oh yeah, but what's the point really? The Tibetan
Bon-Po shaman priests still do this. They've been called the most
powerful and evil magickians that ever lived. I've got an LP of
part of a malicious, destroying ritual.
Sleazy: The gutter press, National Enquirer sort of mentality, use basically the same argument when dealing with more or less anything, whether it's a nuclear bomb or a ritual. Sexuality, for example, they frown on because it is a way of having a powerful experience. Not exploiting, but using the power of human nature to do something. And if it has a possible negative power, then they immediately say that the medium is at fault.
Does the energy of the ritual come from within the person or can it be drawn from other sources?
J Balance: It doesn't really matter where it comes from. The point is it works, that power can be summoned, generated and you can harness, manipulate and channel it, so you never need to know where it comes from.
Why do most people view a ritual or magick as being evil?
Sleazy: It's fear of the unknown. Basically it's because the church saw other people who were doing rituals as a threat to their control.
J Balance: They try to keep a monopoly so anything else is bad or evil and you get thrown i to hell for it. It s Christian propaganda basically. England has strong pagan roots and the church has always attempted to stamp these out. Originally by neutralising pagan temple sites and then building churches on the same sites, then by burning witches and religious persecutions. If they couldn't kill them, they used ridicule and fear tactics to deter people from the pagan heritage. The devil is only a Christian adaptation of a neutral nature deity; Pan, Cernos, the horned gods - which are phallic. The Christian church has never been very sexual, except where the pagan undercurrent has been allowed to emerge because it was too strong to suppress completely. The devil is a representation of pagan sexuality, which is why people are attracted to it even when seen as a Christian invention.
Sleazy: At the moment we're sort of going through a right-wing backlash against the freedom of the sixties and seventies, certainly in terms of sex. And I wouldn't be surprised if in ten years time there was a religious resurgence of interest in the church.
Were the angels symbolic of a larger concept on 'How to Destroy Angels'?
Sleazy: All of what we do is symbolic on several different levels at once, so you can interpret angels as being a number of things, whether it's the controlling influence of the church, or whether it's an unnecessary desire to retain virginity.
J Balance: When I thought of the title, all these things went through me. It was a record to accumulate enough power to destroy theoretical angels - Christian gossamer angels don't seem hard to destroy. It was a curious matter of fact title, almost like a manual a handbook you'd come across which could be the key to immense power and change.
Do you think that Coil will vary to a large extent from TG live?
Sleazy: Yeah, the trouble with playing live is that everything has to be done on the spot more or less. And nobody in TG was a particularly great musician. Basically that narrows down your options as to what you can do live. You can rely very heavily on backing tapes, you can just do your best or you can bring in other musicians. And none of those options are very acceptable to me. Just doing your best and trying to work out sounds that one could reproduce competently and that sounded interesting was really what TG were doing. It got to the point where we couldn't go any further and that's one of the reasons why we split up. And the Psychic TV dates that we did in the Summer and Autumn of 1983 didn't really go any further than TG had. We had Alex playing, who is a good musician in that he can play proper guitar, but jams even with good musicians tend to sound like what their influences are. And so a lot of Psychic TV stuff ended up sounding like The Velvet Underground, which didn't seem to me like it was advancing anything.
J Balance: Although the ideas were interesting live, it became more brutal and relied on the noise element while the ideas got swamped. I mean it's alright for people who had heard the records before and knew what we were about and they got energy off it, but it wasn't much more than a sort of controlled noise with a cause behind it. Which on reflection seems pretty reasonable, but something wasn't right. Genesis would probably say it was our attitude.
Sleazy: Well that's alright, but the reason why we haven't really done any live dates is because we haven't actually solved this problem of what to do. Certainly we could rely more on backing tapes in the way that a lot of groups do, but people really want that sort of dense atmosphere and rely on that adrenalin rush and I don't know if you can get that from backing tapes.
What did you see as the function or purpose behind Throbbing Gristle?
Sleazy: To see if it was actually possible to get people to react physically. And also we were just trying to advance our intellectual and artistic aspirations in a new way, because prior to that we hadn't been doing music at all. And also to have fun and attract young people who we could fuck. All the reasons people normally have groups. (laughs)
Is there such a thing as inaudible sound?
Sleazy: Pardon? (laughs) The theory of all that stuff is that if you actually play something at a lower level or backwards or in flashes on the screen it's absorbed by the subconscious mind which acts upon it immediately. But I've never had any information or evidence that it works. People say The Rolling Stones album `Their Satanic Majesty's Request' has reverse masking and it says, "Come to Satan", or something. I mean it's all bullshit, it doesn't work in my view.
J Balance: Records are very crude as far as recording and playback quality goes and there is no way that scientific experiments can be done in this medium. I think holophonics are far more interesting anyway. Stevo gets accused of doing a big hoax and so does Zuccarelli who developed the system. With holophonics we were able to get atmospheric subliminals and record a particular feeling including the spatial limits of a room or a cave and the movements of people in it. But I remain very dubious about back masking and inaudible sounds having profound but subtle effects.
Sleazy: Coil are interested in subliminals of another kind - delirium subliminals. Avatistic glimpses of a grand chaos - surfacing in flashes of black light - in darkest Dali, Jarry, the Moomintrolls, The Virgin Prunes, in the face of Edith Sitwell, Boyd Rice's humour - emotional subliminals. Psychic information, partly deliberate, mostly instinctive.
Do you think that ghost images in a visual picture have an effect on people?
J Balance: I think they possibly have more effect. Apparently 'The Exorcist' originally had dead animals subliminally put in and they had to take them out. I mean there s,as a huge reaction about people being sick because it was the first high class splatter movie. It has more chance of having an effect if you see adverts many times - and they're not subliminal. If you see adverts for ice cream, next time you're in the shop, you go, "I'll have one of them", because you've seen it on telly. It just works on a crass level like that.
Sleazy: But there are lots of things that happen with films that could be exploited more, just things that you see in the background that you don't notice but are actually there.
J Balance: All of these subjects - subliminals, back-masking, cut-ups, the Industrial group's subjects - culled from Burroughs' 'The Job' and 'The Electronic Revolution', have been done to death... And not very well. Sonic research is very hard to do properly on a Rough Trade advance or whatever. It maintains a pseudo-science, it has a wishy-washy quality that I don't particularly want to be associated with. I'd rather been seen as a perverse noise unit with decidedly dubious musical leanings. I admire the intentions of all these groups, but the purity or scope of the possibilities are diminished by huge amounts in the translation to vinyl. Z'ev and NON seem to remain pure - as do Sonic Youth, but they're coming from a different area as far as I can tell. In the end, the intentions alone can be appreciated - golden conceptualists and dull records type of situation.
Do you think that music is the best medium to get your ideas across to people?
Sleazy: No, I think film and television is by far the strongest because it's a way of really affecting all of us. If you could affect the senses of smell and touch as well, it would be stronger still.
Is there a difference between chance and fate?
Sleazy: I don't think there's such a thing as fate really. I don't think there's such a thing as chance either, but that's different. Fate implies that a certain thing is bound to happen, but I don't think that's the case. To rely on logic, then obviously whatever's going to happen is going to happen. But at the same time, the implication that it's out of your control is obviously rubbish. At any point you have a myriad of choices, whether it's running and jumping out of the window or not Obviously things happen as a result of circumstances that one could not possible foresee and that is what one calls chance.
In the studio, does the recording process differ much with how you've worked previously?
J Balance: With Coil we lay down the backbone ourselves, and if we want to we collaborate with other people. With PTV it was more of a jam, things spontaneously arose out of rehearsals.
Sleazy: But all the PTV records that we were involved in were fundamentally done in the same way that we do now, which is to set down a rhythm and just lay things on top of it as they seem appropriate.
Do you think that you can change society through music?
Sleazy: No, I don't think you can change anything with music particularly?
J Balance: But then again, a group like Crass might say it's not necessarily their music, but the message that's coupled with it. We're very cautious about having one heavy message, but we do have a life style and I do want to change a lot of things. We're obviously not like Ultravox where their album and the way they view life may be quite separate.
Sleazy: I actually don't know any members of Ultravox personally, but my suspicion is that the content of their lyrics actually isn't very deep and doesn't concern very many of the things that I'm interested in. So that's one of the reasons I don't buy Ultravox records. Music is just an expression of the taste of the person that's doing it, and that is ultimately why you buy a record - whether it's Johnny Rotten or Captain Beefheart.
J Balance: If you hear a record you like and you suddenly find out that the people responsible do something that you're really against, then you probably won't listen to the record in the same light.
But shouldn't music be judged on its own merit?
J Balance: I don't think it should just by the song. They should have a sense of realisation that people do tie the two things together.
Sleazy: That's a very difficult question because having been around the 'business' for a long while, I've met people whose music I've respected but whom I discovered 1 didn't respect as people. And certainly that changed my perception of their music and their work.
Do you think that is elitist in some ways?
Sleazy: I think we are elitist. I know that I am a bit of a snob
in some ways. I mean we're talking about politics now and that is
about how much self respect you have and whether you think your
opinion is actually better than somebody else's. And the
important thing Go remember is that one's own opinion is the best
there is for you but not necessarily somebody else. It has got to
do with whether you are big headed enough to think that -our own
opinions are the ones other people should hold. And I think
that's very dangerous. I have certain very strong views about
particular things that other people would certainly think were
elitist, unusual or unacceptable. But I only hold those views for
myself and I wouldn't necessarily expect other people to enjoy
the things that I enjoy. And likewise, I would expect them not to
force me to live in the way that they do.
J Balance: Does that make us the village idiots?
Sleazy: No, but there's the whole tradition, Oscar Wilde or Quentin Crisp or whatever, as being acceptable as the local weirdo in a sense. And the people that do that in America are far more out on a limb until they get some commercial success. I mean New York is a cultural island relative to the midwest - where the people that do weird records have a difficult time. At least in England people are prepared to listen to something new with an open mind, so it's that much easier. It may be crazy, but I still have an optimistic hope that free thinkers will be allowed to continue to do so because most of them are not threatening to society even though society might feel that they are. That is why we're lucky in Britain in that we accept eccentrics and people that do things out of the ordinary as being a healthy and contributory part of society's existence.
J Balance: But you make it sound like it's idealistic and that all these things are allowed to happen. There are huge backlashes all the time against those who appear to deviate. But society needs the deviants in order to change. There's this thing, "Let them grow up so far and perpetuate some sort of change and then beat them down again". It's as if society, like an organism, allows mutation in order to improve itself but keeps a tight rein on how much actually occurs.
Sword imagery creeps into several Coil tracks. Is that simply a phallic symbol?
J Balance: We didn't mean it as a phallic symbol. If you get Freudian then it's definitely a phallic symbol, but in magick it's not. The sound of the swords on 'How To Destroy Angels' represents Mars, as in martial, the God of Spring and War, who cabalistically represents dynamic, positive change. The sword is a symbol of willpower.
Sleazy: Although I certainly wouldn't describe us as militaristic, we recognise that man has an aggressive streak. I don't think the peace movement, for example, has got any real hope of succeeding. You have to recognise the nature of man, accept it and use it.
J Balance: It's the way things happen isn't it? Its created force is what we're aiming at, rather than militaristic, crass and obviously masculine, sexist type things. Rough Trade actually said that the cover notes to `How To Destroy Angels' were misogynist, which I find ridiculous just because it dealt with masculine qualities.
Sleazy: They stocked the record and it sold out, but I don't think they were too happy about it. And they didn't put the poster up either because it was too extreme for them. In man - ways the people that are supposed to be spearheading the libertarian view are just as limited in their view as the gutter press and the more conservative elements.
J Balance: Their ideals often disagree with the practical way they work. They'll say, "Oh yes, we support free thinking and things", but when you actually bring a copy of it into the shop, they'll smash it if it disagrees with their personal sensibilities.
Sleazy: You're bound to come into contact with hypocrisy when you step out the door really. The only thing you can do is to try and make sure it doesn't take place in your own home.
What inspired 'The Sewage Workers Birthday Party'?
Sleazy: It came from a story of the same name in a magazine called Mr S&M, a Scandinavian publication which is basically fetishistic in its content. It's an area I'm interested in anyway. We wanted to try and express it in musical form, and I'm personally quite pleased with the way it turned out. It's an interesting piece of music even if you don't know the original story and where it came from. I'd have liked to print it, but I don't think the people doing the covers would have actually accepted it.
Does it seem strange doing dance music now?
J Balance: Are we doing dance music?
Sleazy: When Throbbing Gristle did 'Twenty Jazz Funk Greats', it was the intention to do something that was more conventional in that form, but it wasn't totally successful because we didn't really know how to do it. We still don't know how to do it, it's just that we wanted to make some of the music a little more up tempo, aggressive and rhythmic. But it's certainly not a considered attempt to do a dance record, because I think if we tried to do that it would be a disaster. I can't speak for the intentions of others, but I get the impression that The Art Of Noise were really a very considered attempt to do dance music in a way that would be artistic and fashionable. And it feels to me that the results are sterile and not very interesting.
J Balance: It all depends on what dance you're going to do. I think that The Birthday Party were dance music, but it wasn't the kind of thing that got played in discos very often.
Do you think that anybody has added a great deal of depth to a song which is also very entertaining and commercially accepted?
Sleazy: It's very hard because you don't know what people's reasons for doing the records were. 'Endless Sleep' by The Poppy Family, `Tainted Love' by Gloria Jones, 'Seasons in the Sun' by Terry Jacks, and 'Emma' by Hot Chocolate, to name a few, seem to work on lots of different levels, but I don't know whether that was the intention of them in the first place. I mean from The Beatles onwards, some records have struck at exactly the right time for them to be amazingly successful and also interesting from some other philosophical or inspirational point of view. I think that's true for films as well. That's probably one of the most satisfying things for a creative person to do, because that spiritual or philosophical side stands or falls for what it is.
What do you think about cults that develop around certain bands, such as the mimicking of haircuts and dress that became noticeable with TG and PTV.
J Balance: Thoughtless and crass mimicking of anything is worthless.
Sleazy: It's one thing to dress a particular way and to meet other people that have by their own route arrived at similar conclusions. But to wear things because one's hero or idol happens to wear them is really weird and a bit unhealthy - and slightly distasteful. That whole thing of Marc Almond clones - even though Marc's terrific. It's the same with Bowie clones. It's ironic as well because at the time we were in PTV, one of the messages of the group was free thinking and independence from that kind of thing. I can't speak for what they're doing now because they're going their own way and I wish them well, but there's no way that I personally could continue to be a part of that.
How important is image to Coil?
Sleazy: We haven't established an image for Coil as such. Although we obviously have interests slightly apart from the norm, we haven't particularly gone out of our way to create an image. In many ways it works against us because that means when we do occasionally give interviews, people don't really know what to ask.
J Balance: We've got the added problem that we could easily rely on ex-PTV and play up all the same things, but we make a conscious effort to play down those things even though some of the aspects we're still very much involved in. We're making a conscious effort to be isolationists. I think it might become our image in a way. I suppose some people might try and pick up on the fact that we're gay and associate us with that - like Bronski Beat who were only ever thought of in that context.
Sleazy: It's a question of really not allowing ourselves to be reduced to two dimensional objects. Although sexuality is fairly important part of what we do, it's by no means the only part and I don't see it as a restriction.
Why are so many people scared away by some of the imagery that TG and PTV made use of, such as skulls etc.?
Sleazy: I think that it must be that we have a different threshold, a different interpretation upon imagery. I mean it's a cliche to say this, but I've been at home and felt happier in fairly desolate and lonely sorts of places. And if people get scared by photos of the Berlin wall or something like that, then I just can't perceive of the life they lead and how they could find it scary, because it just seems natural to me. A vast proportion of what we do and the way that we live our lives would probably freak out the majority of civilised people, simply because it's out of the norm of their experience. It would certainly freak out my mum. We don't have any wallpaper, we've got rat shit everywhere, it's just a completely different way of living. But the reason that people get frightened is because of their interpretation of those things, not because of the reality of them. It's easy for a person to interpret a photo of you holding a skull, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you are a devil worshipper or a necrophiliac. It's their interpretation which is at fault. If my mum was living here, after a while she would probably think it completely normal and would have a much more realistic scale to determine whether I was a nice person or not. It's a very dangerous thing that some of the newspapers and the media do because it's so easy for them. And they're going to sell newspapers for being outrageous and saying, "Naughty Vicar", and "VD Hospital", shift. But outrage has always been a commodity. I mean Boy George, The Sex Pistols and everything are all manufactured, totally. But none of us, even Gen, has ever done anything really to make mileage out of being outrageous, it just comes naturally. Which is quite different I think. Although you see people on the subway with whom you feel you have absolutely nothing in common with and possibly even dislike just because of the kind of people they are, I'd rather have nothing to do with them. I don't think it's even worth going to the effort of outraging them. I just wish they weren't there.
Is there anything else that should be known about Coil?
Sleazy: We have talked quite a lot about ritual and I'm not sure if that gives a true picture of what we do. Because although it is part of our lives, it's not something that we would particularly be interested in having a name for promoting amongst young people. The Temple Ov Psychic Youth was an attempt to bring ritual to other people. I wouldn't really want to be seen doing that still, because I don't feel it is my job to tell people how they should live. But if they want to ask me, that's fine.