Rolling through a fluid series of line-ups, Coil have formed a vital nexus in global underground music over the past 2 decades. Initially comprising just 'angry young visionary' John Balance, the band quickly expanded to include ex-Throbbing Gristle tech-wizard and member of the Psygnosis psychedelic design and video collective Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson. They transfigured the early 80's industrial scene with the vicious blasts of the Scatology and Horse Rotovator LPs, and provided vital links between many groupings with interests in magick, ritual and mental exploration. Over the years they have moved through an array of styles with the likes of Marc Almond, Annie Anxiety (ex-Crass), Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) and Autechre, and are currently bringing more live sounds into their electronic brew with the assistance of one Thighpaulsandra, member of the Spiritualized touring band.
John Balance is an extremely lucid and personable man, and this comes as quite a surprise given the band's reputation for trawling the extreme reaches of magickal and musical experience for strange tidbits to bring back and present to their listeners over the past 18-odd years. His seeming sanity is even more of a surprise given the story that he launches into when I ask him for the thinking behind the sharp-edged sonic clarity and upfront melody of Coil's most recent albums (Astral Disaster, Time Machines & Musick To Play In The Dark vols 1 & 2, all released over the last year):
"Well, it was just time for us to do that, to let our musical ideas be clearly heard - we've been going for so long that we simply had to explore that direction. I think we'd gone as far as we could in the direction of brutalising and over-processing every sound. If you go back to the Love's Secret Domain album - I don't know the dates, maybe 90 or 91 - we were taking a lot of hallucinogens, and surrounded by new equipment, samplers, synths, all kinds of things. Everything we did had to be processed and folded in, every recognisable sound would be collapsed in on itself or concealed, the work was becoming incredibly obsessive. There's one track - Further Back And Faster, I think - where we were trying to permutate a poem from this Charles Laughton film and we ended up full-on fist fighting in the studio... He was a figure we've been fascinated with for a while now: this British actor who had some success in Hollywood, like being the Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and went on to direct this amazing film, Night Of The Hunter with Robert Mitchum, but he was gay and all the time living this odd secret life... I think he ended up somewhere like Scarborough with his 16-year-old lover... Well, we took his words from the Night Of The Hunter, we'd split them up across the sampling keyboard, we needed everyone's hands on to play the thing, and we ended up in real psychic warfare over the permutating of it, punches were thrown all over the place, it was getting really psychotic. We'd been up and tripping hard for 5 days, and we were getting to the point of seeing gods in the studio - I mean real physical manifestation of Chinese Gods were accosting us. I mean, we've never been ones to flit about with nice fractals and acid smileys - we always like to dive right in to the extreme depths. After that I vowed never to be like that again... I mean, after those sessions finished, I took a taxi home to Chiswick, and I just lay on the floor, literally not knowing who I was. I had no idea what my name was, what I did for a living, anything; it took me a good two or three of weeks to piece back together any semblance of normality.
"So, basically, it came to the point where change had to come. We believe in our own musical skills now, and with the people we have in the band now, Thighpaulsandra and our viola player William Breeze, we want to be able to show the immediacy of the sounds they can produce. We produced a set of four EPs over the course of a year, recording each one over the actual hours of the equinox. It wasn't some mystical, dance-around-the-Beltane-fire kind of thing, but a precise way of charting the development of the band through the quarters of the year. We would improvise all the music in the few hours of the actual equinox, and I would come out with whatever words were uppermost in my head, then we'd mix the thing in time to release it for the next equinox. That really showed us the way to go, and that's what we've done with the recent albums: made them as instantaneous mood poems, with that raw and clear thing that we liked. Everything we're doing now is faster, clearer, cleaner, where before we would think and think, and wrestle with ourselves and the technology, and fold it all in and in, collapse and conceal and tangle everything. Although we are still messing with the vocals on a lot of tracks - really folding them and bending them inward so the listener has to follow them down to chase the meanings."
So is this sleek minimal cleanliness going to go further?
"Yes and no. We're definitely going as far as we can with this spontaneity and immediacy, but the next Royal Festival Hall show [on the 19th September] is going to focus on far more aggressive sides to the process. Remember before the RFH gig earlier this year, we hadn't played live for 17 years, so there are so many different things we want to do now. It's emphatically not going to be industrial or techno beats, though. We've been working out the sound on the CD that is to be given away at the concert, Constant Shallowness Leads To Evil, it's called - it's some of the most aggressive music I've ever heard, but it's rich and flowing, it's like a mantra. It's definitely built around the reaction between Thighpaulsandra and us [Balance and other long-time member and Throbbing Gristle veteran Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson] and the way we're working with these huge modular synthesisers. Between us we've got 4 of these Fenix synths, which I think is more than half of the total number in the country, and we patch them all together to create these massive circuits, to make a real wall of sound. In the live show, Thighpaulsandra really excels at this, intuitively re-wiring all the circuits, while we move around him telepathically. I'm not being facile here, it really is into the realms of telepathy when every movement you make on stage sends new patterns into the sound. We're definitely staying away from the tyranny of the beat, just building up this huge dense sound; it's like the power of rock music, although we are as far away as we can possibly get from the posturing of rock & roll. We want to fill the entire space with this sound, to have people cowering - now we've got this system we want to see how far we can take it."
So far, so psychedelic, but Coil have never been wide-eyed voyagers of the void; their depictions of the paranoia's of being gay and strange in a soulless world have always had a more or less explicitly political dimension, charged with the angry expression of the will which comes from their magickal explorations. I wonder if this is still the case, given the relative melodic calm of their recent work.
"Oh, very much so. At the same time as our music is getting more immediate, so the lyrics are getting more directly personal and political. Take the track Circulating Library: it's referring to the Sunday papers, the travesty of so many trees dying to create this emptiness. I really despise it, the huge amount of space used to discuss absolute nothingness; it's like a bunch of carrion crows in a circle at each others' throats for a few tiny morsels, it's horrible. We notice it so much more since leaving London - the whole set-up is 90% dedicated to describing that little inner London circle to itself, where to eat, where to buy handbags. And it applies to the NME and the rest of them, too. The few people in there who might want to really communicate and explore things are just stifled in the rush to turn the microscope on this little group of celebrities. It's pure spectacularism - everything Guy Debord and the situationists said holds true, the media just circulate these few images of glamour and spectacle; no-one wants to look inside, to deal with the richness and variety and magic and music of human existence. We're very into these situationist posters and slogans at the moment... there's this one group, Common Ground, who have a slogan - "resist the things you can find everywhere" - and I'm very into that. It's anarchy, really, anarchy on a personal level, not accepting the world as it's fed to you. There's no time for irony now, it's so empty. The time has really come for people to write slogans, to stamp them on people's foreheads, to spray them everywhere, so say what they feel. These are volatile times, and you can't afford to be placid or vapid; self-satisfied irony just won't do anymore."
Does anyone have this purity of expression now?
"I'd love to believe in what Primal Scream are saying, but there's still that posturing, it's still fucking rock & roll - they look like the Clash in 1979, all dressed up by Jasper Conran. They've got a real passion and they're doing the benefits and so on, but it's still ostentatious hedonism. Marilyn Manson, too - it's good rock theatre, I enjoy it, but it's saying nothing. I mean, really, if 'rock is dead' then just DIE! I'm not sure about Slipknot, I'd like to see their live show - it seems very intense, but I don't feel like there is much content in it. Maybe I'm just not on the right drugs, maybe they're as powerful for their audience as the Butthole Surfers were in their prime...? The people I really admire now are Robert Wyatt and Ivor Cutler, who quietly go about their lives, stating what they see to be true. Atari Teenage Riot are exceptional, actually - they're doing some very good stuff. It is rock and roll, but it goes much further, it's incredibly focussed and honest. I think all these people are doing stuff that comes from the same place. We love people like Lemmy in his Hawkwind days, Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers, Roky Erikson [13th Floor Elevators] as well... not because of any kind of hippy or drug thing, but because they were unstoppable in the creation of their own universes. These are people who don't accept anything but their own vision, and that links them all, although the vision is filtered in very different ways by individual personalities, it's still possible to talk about Ivor Cutler and ATR in the same breath."
And so it winds on, through LaMonte Young, Beefheart, Blake, Austin Osman Spare, Leonard Cohen, and Balance's own lifelong internal journeys: tales of visionaries inspiring one another, transmitting secret messages, giving out reminders that there is a world beyond the consensual hallucination of 'civilisation', a world crackling with electronic fire, dark poetry and deep music that speaks of the infinite and more.
"And every time you hear something that inspires," he concludes, "it makes you want to pull your socks up, to redouble your efforts, to express your feelings and your politics. Which is why now more than ever, we're saying explicitly, that Coil is full-on magick, full-on music and queer. If you have a sense of the place where creativity comes from, you have to do it - we're on a mission to do this, it's in our hearts and bodies, this is us."