From three-minute songs to hour-long drones, the iconoclastic duo that is Coil have never played by the rules. for them, music is everywhere and in everything, and their attempts to isolate and render their most intriguing sonic discoveries have become increasingly compelling. Where rock and electronica end, so Coil begin. Guy Strachan explores the mind-field.
"We have the tools to make music out of anything; the scope has been so widened. It’s like the old punk thing of 'learn a chord and another chord and form a band'; I could never understand why they needed to learn a chord at all or why they needed to use a guitar or drums, it just seemed to be a coward’s way out. There's a hundred times more possibilities than there were thirty years ago."
From the 'How To Destroy Angels' single of 1984 to the present day, Coil have been pursuing and exploring these 'possibilities' for the best part of twenty years. In that time, the activities of the duo of John Balance and Peter Christopherson have become near legendary through a career that has often been shrouded by a veil of conjecture and mystery with stories of record release cancellations and postponements, the use of a myriad of pseudonyms and, above all, a body of work that continues to remain at the forefront of experimentalism. Yet for all their efforts, the idea that the workings of Coil equal Chaos never seems to go away.
"That's probably [true], yes," laughs Peter Christopherson when asked if Coil is indeed in the eye of a storm of chaos, "but I think that it's more of a creative chaos rather than just not being able to get things together, although that does happen too sometimes!"
You could be forgiven for thinking that Coil is a living, breathing example of the laws of outside influence or indeed the maxim of 'if you play with fire you get burned'. Coil are undoubtedly heavily influenced (and John Balance in particular seems to be a frequent practitioner) with and by magic(k) in a multitude of forms. For example, the upcoming special edition of the new series of live CDs will feature "art objects loaded with magickal intention". But how much bearing do such interests have on Coil's output?
"It's true to say that we are influenced by a lot of currents in the world that are not immediately accepted or recognised or regarded as a part of so-called Western reality, if you like, of which the occult is one thing," Peter reckons, "but there are also a lot of other passages of energy, meaning and corruption and decay that pass around through the modern world that have a tremendous influence on us so in that case, yes."
So is Coil a vehicle through which you can channel those energies?
"Well, not all of those things are necessarily positive energies and quite often we, in a small way, take on causes that we think are important that are not a question of us supporting them but a question of us taking a stand against them. For example, the campaign against light pollution (International Dark Skies); against the prevalence of light in society, not only as a symbol but also as a reality such as with street lights coming on at night and shining into everyone's bedroom windows, so it's not just that we take up a series of wacky or weird causes and treat them as our own."
Christopherson's line of of not all energies being positive as well as the aforementioned playing with fire were brought home to Coil in the winter of 2002/3. During that period, Balance succumbed to a major bout of depression, culminating in his not eating for a total of twenty-one days and surviving on "occasional glasses of vodka and milk".
"He's at the sort of cutting edge of raw existence," Christopherson explains, "He experiences life to the full and whether that's through an alcoholic haze or a haze of any other kind of chemical or a haze of religious, spiritual or sexual fervour, in doing those things without restriction you inevitably expose yourself to a large number of dangers and sometimes those dangers and demons can get the better of him. I think that he's planning to go into retreat for a year and recharge his batteries and consider which direction he wants to take so that will probably have an influence but again, it doesn't mean that we're not going to continue to do things or to explore different ways of doing things."
Yet Balance's illness came at a time when Coil's public profile was arguably at its highest level for nigh on a decade. Having spent much or the '80s in a world of little promotion, the release of 'Love's Secret Domain' in 1991 was heralded with a promotional campaign that included quantities of press advertising not to mention a good amount of shop display space. Yet although the campaign had the required effect of an increased interest in Coil's activities, the following years saw Coil retreat into the netherworlds with most releases only advertised through mailing lists and the like. In the present day, where on the one hand Coil have begun playing live for the first time since the mid-80's, yet couple it with a veritable avalanche of releases that can differ hugely from one to the next.
"We've always done a lot of different things," explains Christopherson. "'Black Light District' was quite different to ’Time Machines' which was quite different from the conventional albums. Obviously we did start to play live again at the beginning of 2000 and in the time since then we've done quite a lot of touring and basically doing four completely different kinds of show because we've got such a low threshold of boredom; we're not the kind of people that can go out and do a hundred-date tour and do the same songs on each date because it's too boring, basically. So that's kind of increased the public perception of how much we've been doing. We've always done a lot, but not necessarily always in the public eye. I think that Coil goes in cycles of doing things publicly but then there are always things that we do privately. But what you said is true; there was a kind of a gap between 1994 and 1997/8 when we started to do a lot of other things as well. There'll probably be a gap in 2004 every '4 to '7 during a decade we always take that time off!"
As Christopherson said, autumn 2002 saw Coil take to the road across the length and breadth of Europe. The fruits of this labour are the series of four CDs from the tour (as well as an upcoming DVD), each of which comprises a different aspect of Coil's performance work. The first disc, 'Live Four' is out already with the second disc in the series, 'Live Three' (lord knows why they are being issued in reverse order!) being released as I type.
"By the time that this interview is published all four discs should be out," Christopherson reckons, "they encompass four main styles; number one is a double CD containing the first performance we did at the Royal Festival Hall in London and a performance we did at Sonar in Barcelona where there was a kind of riot. We played in this church and there was a riot when people tried to get in as the number of Catalonians who wanted to see us had been underestimated. Those shows are quite electronic and abstract and quite mad in that way. The second album is the first of the two shows that we did in Moscow. That one is more song-oriented: we played a couple of songs with quite a few more electronic pieces. The one after that is Bologna which is much more song—oriented and featured Cliff Stapleton on hurdy-gurdy and Mike York on bagpipes and the last one is the tour that we just completed in the Autumn which was Prague and Vienna which is very song-orientated."
Did you know which style you were going to play beforehand or was it a case of 'this style feels right tonight'?
"Around each of the recorded shows we were playing four or five other dates in a two to three-week period and within those times the shows had the same structure although each individual show was different from the next in terms of performance because of the way in which we play which is pretty spontaneous but the structures remained the same for that particular month of shows. As I said, within the structure it is completely spontaneous and that's basically one of the reasons why John made himself ill because what he does live is that although he does have some lyrics written down, many times he'll completely depart from them and it's sort of like a stream of consciousness, weird type of delivery of words that he has that people find fascinating and difficult to look away from. The difficulty with that of course is that it's very hard and draining to do for an extended period. Therefore, shows on two consecutive nights could have a completely different vibe although they would have the same form in the sense that the videos that we have projected onto screens and ourselves, we have three or four projectors running at any time, the structure of things is the same but one show could have a completely different vibe to the next."
The 'completely different vibe' ethic also applies to Coil's recorded works in equal measures. If you were to play, say, 'Worship The Glitch', 'Time Machines' and 'Music To Play In The Dark', you'd undoubtedly think that you were listening to a completely different entity on each release. While there remains a distinctive Coil stamp running through their catalogue (and in some recordings that stamp is far more elusive than in others!), Balance and Christopherson often go in completely different directions and paths. A reason for all the pseudonyms that Coil has used?
"We used to feel more pressures about that than we do now," is the explanation offered for names such as ElpH and Eskaton gathering dust, "For example, when we did 'Time Machines' we were very conscious that it shouldn't be called 'Coil' because it was so abstract and so away from anything that Coil had done but now we feel less pressure about that because people now know not to expect anything from us apart from the fact that it will have our distinctive stamp on it so I feel less worried about whether it's Coil or not. Coil tends to change for each project; it's much more of a mutant form than it used to be."
And while Coil are in prolific mode, as well as an appearance at the upcoming Capsule Festival in Birmingham on 12th July and the promised arrival of the infamous 'Backwards' project (the album that Coil have been working on since signing to Trent Reznor’s Nothing imprint back in 2002!), there is a brand new album in the works that was recorded during Coil's recent trip to Russia. Yet being Coil, it is unlikely to be a standard album in any shape or form.
“We are still planning to do another Time Machines album but before then we're hoping to do an album which will be entitled 'Coil ANS' which we recorded in Moscow using an opto-mechanical device called the ANS which is the initials of Scriabin, the Russian composer." Christopherson begins "In the fifties, he had this device built for him. It looks like a huge printing machine; it's a weighty, metal construction that has a large plate of glass that slides in the front of the machine that is covered in a black oil or mastic and in order to make sound on this machine you scrape thin, clear lines out of this mastic and as the glass passes under a series of light-sensitive cells different pitches are made or derived so by drawing on the glass and then moving the glass the different sounds are produced so if one had the patience they could either be orchestral sounding or completely abstract and so we spent a day recording the output of this machine based on the drawings we had made on the glass."
Do you feel you're getting closer to capturing human thoughts and feelings on record?
"Absolutely. The sounds it made were just fantastic because the actual quality of the sine waves and the tones that it produces are quite unlike those from a synthesizer where the frequency is derived electronically and the actual sound of the CD is much more like 'Time Machines' in the sense that it is a series of abstract tones that builds up or has an effect on the listener which was the effect with 'Time Machines'. We have talked for some time about releasing a five-CD box set of 'TM' things but in a way this 'ANS' album is the next part of that. If you compare the sound to the drawings that will be on the finished release you'll be able to see the correlation between the two. It's fascinating for someone who's familiar with synthesizers and computers to make sound in a completely different way using different muscles and different parts of your brain and that's a very interesting process and it would be interesting for me to hear back from listeners as to whether the quality that we as composers or musicians have brought to our records is present in this even though the apparatus is completely different."
Whatever they go on to do, you can be sure that Coil will push them to whatever limits they need. In summing up, Christopherson lays forth his philosophy which should make more than one musician out there feel a little uncomfortable.
"The thing that is most important for me is that people who make music continue to question everything about what they do. That extends from the ideas that they're having and the sounds they're creating and the ideas that they're putting forward to the way in which their music is being distributed, promoted and sold and not to take anything for granted. You need to make sure that no stone remains unturned as to making the best possible thing that you can. It sounds like a silly idea but so many people have a record deal, they hear from their friends that their music doesn't sound like something else and as a consequence people aim lower. With Coil, because we've never been on a major label and we've never really had anyone telling us what to do it's been a tremendous advantage. The consequences are that we‘ve made a lot of different records that don't sound like anyone else. It means you have to eat a lot of cheap food and live in relatively cheap places. It'll never make you rich but there are other things in life."