Contrary to my recently obliterated belief, techno wasn't invented just ten years ago and Nine Inch Nails was not one of the founders of industrial music. (Yes, I know it's embarrassing that I believed such things.) It turns out, that the true roots of electronic music head back much further, with a major focal point being the work of Coil.
Coil's experimental music expresses itself in a peculiar way, merging simple and complex electronics, vocals, and live instruments. They work directly in the listeners' subconscious. And that is what they did to America on August 18, during their first-ever North American performance, held at Irving Plaza, New York City, as part of Convergence 7 (C7 is the seventh annual convergence of goths from around the world. What a unique occasion for an American debut.)
Formed in 1983, Coil is Peter Christopherson and John Balance, newer official members (Drew McDowell in 1995 and Thighpaulsandra in 1997), and several changing collaborators. Peter was a member of Throbbing Gristle, the band that pioneered industrial music in the mid-seventies, and both Peter and John were members of the revolutionary Psychic TV, from which they broke off to form Coil. Coil have an album due on Nothing Records in Spring 2002 for Summer release, and will have a follow-up tour that year. Backed by Nothing and a U.S. tour, their mass-market exposure may soon dramatically change.
Considering these are the great warlocks of the keyboards, I was surprised that during their soundcheck, you could hardly tell Peter and John from the rest of the stage crew. Both in slacks and t-shirts (John in a Coil t-shirt no less; probably an inside joke). Peter did most of the quality control, checking each setup and discussing issues with many of the crew members. John, who does the vocals, stayed by the mike, singing, screeching, and whispering through parts of a few songs that were tested (including "Amethyst Deceivers", "Blood from the Air", and "The Green Child".) Their soundcheck was barely an hour long. Not much for the band that was considered the headliner by most and for many was the only reason to attend C7.
I, my photographer, Dick Robotic, and our producer, Stud Chambers, caught up with them just after their soundcheck.
Alien Rock!: Could I just start?
John Balance: yeah, yeah
A: Okay, I want to start off just asking you, why did you decide to do C7? [(heard outside)--when you guys are ready to go, let me know I'll get the information back to you, yeah thank you very much]
A: What made you decide to do C7?
Peter Christopherson: Oh, you can't say that. That sounds horrible.
J: No, no, no, we had a free weekend and the TV was really bad in England this weekend
P: That sounds sarcastic.
Thighpaulsandra: We haven't ever done an American show before, so this is our first American show and...
P: They asked us nicely.
A: Was it like recently, like just a few...
P: Yeah it was a few weeks ago.
T: Yeah a month.
A: Oh, really, so it was just spur of the moment. That's great because you've never played in America before.
P: Oh, he has with Spiritualized, but we don't mention that. (small laugh in group)
A: How does it feel so far, traveling all the way from England?
T: Oh, I love it. I love America.
A: (small laugh) Great... I was wondering how did you get in touch with Trent Reznor and Nothing Records? Or did they get ...
P: He contacted us.
J: He worships the ground we walk on.
A: (small laugh)
P: But he hasn't spoken to us for 6 years either, so you can take the middle distance between those two things.
P: We owe them an album and we are Nothing Artists.
J: Well we're releasing an album on Nothing next year.
A: So that is now your official label?
P: In America, yes.
A: In America, okay.
J: It will be a domestic release.
Dick Robotic: When are you putting out the new album 'cause I heard it's released in Europe already.
P: No, it's not. It's not released in Europe. It's not even mixed.
J (said with Peter): It's not even mixed. (laugh in group)
P: It's been mixed a number of times, but it has yet to be mixed again.
A: How has being with Nothing affected your career and how would you like it to affect your career?
J: I'd like to be extremely rich and have loads of modular synthesizers
J: Given to me by Trent Reznor, really.
T: We want to be more...
P: Apparently it's not happening. Not happening, not happening , not happening...
A: How would you feel if you started going a lot into the mass market of America? Would that be something...
P: Well, we have no control over things like that, but I would like it.
J: If it happens, it happens.
P: I'd like it.
T: If more teenage boys get to like us, that's good for us.
A: So it's not like something you feel pressured for. If it happens, it happens.
J: I'm a little concerned about the hats.
A: The hats?
P: Which hats? ...Coil hats...what are those?
J: Baseball caps! I can't deal with.
P: So that's an area I'll just have to deal with when it happens.
T: Then we have the hats like the siren in the arm movement they had sort of wooly bubble caps with wires coming out.
J: Oh, with wires coming out.
T: I think we should set upon the American youth movement bubble hats with wire coming out.
A: Bubble wire with hats?
J: You know like ski caps ...
P: With twisted wire coming out
A: Oh, okay.
T: Instead of like baseball caps.
A: Instead of like propellers.
J: That may be a sort of flippant remark you may want to remove later, I don't know.
A: (laughs) Okay.
P: And I've seen the 1000th one.
A: (laughs) You can edit it right now I was thinking...Do you have any future musical goals that you want to meet?
P: Get Thighpaulsandra to play with us all the time. Sorry.
J: That couldn't happen.
P: Let's get through tonight first.
T: We'd like to do more of what we do already but do it in a more extreme way and do bigger shows.
T: To more people and have a bigger production
T: Because otherwise...
Stud Chambers: And have more time for your sound check.
T: Yeah, and more time for the soundcheck and have you know...
J: What we asked for.
P: This is a little bit Mom and Pop for us, which is fine. It's sweet and lovely people, but a lot of what makes a Coil show powerful is technology that's a little bit beyond what we have right tonight.
J: Technology and extremity.
T: (offtape) Oh my god the power chords are... (trails off)
A: Do you think like this kind of stage limits the amount of technology you can use?
P: Not to get into the fine details, but we asked for a lot of stuff and it hasn't turned up, so it's not going to be as intense as we want, so I'll just compensate by attacking someone.
A: Was there multimedia they couldn't provide?
P: Well, the best concerts we've had like 15 strobe lights going off for 15 minutes at the end, with a huge great video screen, directly back, the size of a stage and strobes and smoke and stuff, but we're sort of on a DIY, didn't it...
S: Were you a little disappointed when you got here?
J: Not really, you work with what you get.
P: It's happened before. You have to have like a Zen attitude towards these things. Different shows have different qualities anyway. You can't make them do the same. It would be boring for us to do the same show everytime.
A: So the Zen theory. What is this exactly?
P: Work with what you're given.
A: Work with what you're given.
P: Yeah. Instead of having stereo, it's the sound of one speaker flapping.
A: Okay (laughs)
P: One woofer woofing.
A: Do you have any--you've worked with a lot of collaborators--do you have any favorites? Or maybe you don't want to pick any.
P: No, we hate them all. Bastards, all of them.
J: Who did we work with? I'd like to work with Lydia Lunch. I'd like to work with Diamanda Galas. We have worked with Mark Almond, who is a bastard.
P: No, he's not. The reason that we work with people is because we like them.
J: Yeah, of course.
P: We don't really have any favorites you know. We're always looking for new people to work with.
P: Mark's funny. He's really a nice guy.
A; Are there any you'd like to reveal coming up in the future, any new collaborators?
J: Axl Rose.
P: We're not working with Axl Rose.
A: No. (laughs)
P: Autechre, we're doing some things with them.
D: And Labradford right?
J: We're supposed to remix Labradford, but seems they're as slow as we are. It's taken them six years to make a phone call. We worked with Tony Surgeon. I don't know if you know him. Do you know Surgeon?
A: No. Actually I'm kind of like reporting from the outside, looking in.
J: Well Jeff Mills, do you know Jeff Mills, Chicago, cutting edge of house, just pure rhythm. . .
A: My photographer probably knows who that is.
J: Surgeon's doing a remix for us.
D: Okay, so you're remixing.
J: We will be remixing him, that's what we've done, we're swapping remixes.
D: Why did you do the NIN remixes?
P: Why did we?
P: Because they asked us.
J: Because it was really good material. Not just on the master tape, but it's quality material to work with and we thought instead of sort of changing it, not for the better, but there was enough to work with. It's good fun.
A: If you were offered like a big concert to do, do you have any like rules for what you will and will not do. Like if a car commercial wants to use your music, is that something like "aw, I don't really want to. . ." Do you have certain places you don't want your music to appear for the integrity?
T: Well, how much money are you offering? (laughs)
J: A car wouldn't be too bad. Though I can't drive, and I hate cars.
P: I wouldn't like it to be in a cigarette commercial. Or a vivisection commercial, but you don't really have those do you?
A: A sex commercial?
P: A vivisection.
A: Oh, vivisection.
J: You don't get commercials for that, do you?
A: No. P: Well we wouldn't do that if they did. Well stage gear, Korg, anyone. Generally we have a pretty liberal attitude towards letting people use our stuff. By the time it comes out, it's kind of like your children leaving you, and you just have to let your children go. Why, have you got any contacts?
A: No, I don't, but I just thought there were cars that wanted to use your music and you were like "no, we don't want to do that."
J: It's a weird thing that we thought Lexus used our music at one point. It turned out it wasn't ours at all. But we're not sure. We've never really cleared it up.
P: A lot of times our stuff gets used in back-ads, in rubs, you know the back end mixes that film editors do. And then subsequent to that they re-record it or do it a bit straighter for the finished product. But our stuff gets used in demos all the time for Hollywood.
A: So they use your stuff, but you just don't get credit for it. [real loud soundcheck taking place] It's kind of hard...
J: You won't be able to hear anything.
A: This is kind of my bizarre question, just wrapping up here. I don't want to take up too much of your time. Have you ever seen a spirit, I was wondering?
J: Yes, many, many, many, many times.
A: What did your spirit--what did the spirit look like that you saw?
J: Well I've seen about--I have serious--they're not psychotic breaks, but I see spirits all the time. A: Everyday? J: Not today. Not so far.
J: But I can see people, just sometimes the air becomes solid with people, literally sort of translucency, but solidity at the same time and so dense that it can get quite affecting and horrifying, and I have to sort of remember to keep the right balance on it.
P: You saw Bruce Willis once didn't you? I have to go. I have to go...
A: What did the spirit look like? Could you describe what it looked like?
J: It depends. Normally they just genuinely look like people. They'll merge in with ordinary people too. They can be on the top of a double-decker bus in London. Or on a tube train in the middle of the day.
A: Can you see through them? Are they like transparent?
J: No. No.
A: They look solid? J: Sometimes, if I look at say curtains or something, I can see millions of dead bodies in them.
A: In them?
J: Yeah. That's not nice.
A: (laughs) That's not nice. Are you being serious or are you joking?
J: Yeah, I'm totally serious.
A: Do you know if Peter's seen any?
J: He's seen some. We've got regular ghosts in our house.
A: Are they the same ones, or do they change?
J: No, there's about three, but they're fine. They're just like ghosts-ghosts. It's different to have the whole room full of solid objects. And you get their emotions as well. That's the scary thing. It's a total overload of information.
A: I only have seen one spirit in my life and that's when the whole world changed for me. I look at things totally differently now. And mine was like cloudy white with a sparkly-silver outline.
J: Sounds nice.
A: Very interesting! And it went through a door--a solid--it was a closed door.
J: Where was this?
A: In my dormitory where I live. It suddenly appeared in the hallway, glided forward a few feet and went through a solid door and disappeared. And I wasn't shocked at the time. I just went on with my day and then only a day later felt like "Why didn't I scream at the time?"
J: Why should you scream?
A: Because it was the first time I ever saw anything, for that long.
J: (small laugh)
A: I was wondering because you ask on the Web site--I don't know if you're the ones that did this or not--"What kind of animal are you?"
A: What kind of animal are you?
J: I'm a dog.
A: You're a dog.
J: And he's a bear.
A: And Peter's a bear. All the time?
A: Okay, that's it. Thank you very much for your time.
J: You're welcome.
The Set List:
Higher Beings Command
What Kind Of Animal Are You?
Blood from The Air
The Green Child
Constant Shallowness Leads To Evil
Don't Even Know What a Drug Is?
Before their show started at 11:30 PM, Peter and John walked on stage for some final adjustments. Hardly anyone noticed. Perhaps people didn't know what they looked like or were keeping with the introverted goth persona.
At show time, the five members from Coil (John, Peter, Thighpaulsandra (soundboard), Tom Edwards (marimba), and Martin Schellard (guitar) walked on stage, all except for Tom Edwards were wearing grey jump suits that shone white and that had cloth belts that seemed to dangle from their waists. This time the crowd recognized them, as it abrupted in screams of relief--18 years of waiting to see this band were finally over.
"Something" started the ceremony, repeating in a breathy deep voice. John swung the belts off his sleeve up and down as if blessing the crowd at an alternate world church ceremony. "I know why the birdcage sings," John intoned, in a rickety high pitched voice, over the sound of screeching, whistling winds. John brought prayer hands back over his head and to his gut. The ceremony progressed.
The sound and visuals worked together to form a body and soul experience for all. It had rising action, a climax, and a denouement. There was no deciphering between one song's exact ending and another's beginning. The same was true for the visuals. It was all continuous and affecting. During "Something," on the screen behind them, checkered cubes moved within the bounds of a sphere. It was too dizzying to look at for long. "Something" became "Higher Beings Command." There was the sound of flapping air, mixed with drones and high whistles, as "Higher Beings Command" was spoken in a languid voice. Images of a woman in Imperial Asian wear flashed rapidly: she had her hands out and was smiling; she whispered; her hands were on her hips as she talked and smiled. It expressed to me human emotion, its versatility and irrationality.
Some distortion that wasn't part of a song could be heard early in the show; a crew member walked on stage to adjust one of the setups. The gentle drumming of "Amethyst Deceivers" ensued. Clouds shot through a light blue and a pink filter moved like waves in the ocean on screen. An electronic swiping noise could be heard as John swung his suit's belt around. This song faded to silence, one of several breathing pauses during the show, when the crowd went wild.
"The Green Child" began with electric guitar heavy-metal-like strums. John did the voice-overs in a normal voice and with a deep demonic voice. White lights in spiral shapes, waved along the floor audience. Like a rabid animal, John yelled "I am an animal!", "I am a dog!", I am a salamander!". A symmetrical, fiery head on screen (my opinion of this Rorschach test) seemed to be speaking his words. A red light circled on the screen, I felt I had completely succumb. It was like looking into lava and seeing shadows of faces in the middle.
The true climax (but to me it had several or could be considered a one-hour climax): two young, fit men (Danny McKernan and Matthew Gibson), wearing only white underwear and splattered with blood, carried on stage about a 10 x 8 foot piece of sheet metal. They held it motionless center stage. John got down on all fours and knocked his head into it repeatedly. It made a subtle bop noise. I wondered if the sound capabilities at Irving kept it from being louder. He turned his ass to the metal and bowed down.
I felt drones and small thunders from the music inside my body. I vibrated from the inside out. I closed my eyes for a new effect. Opening my eyes, over red clouds flashed in Helvetica type the double entendre "God please fuck my mind for good," then "Resist the things you can find everywhere," and "Persistence is all." A blink and you could have missed one of the notes.
The music and stage presence had worked together so well that by the end, I was brought to a new place, between reality and the music. I stayed there until the show finished and they walked off with no encore (probably none was allowed), regardless of the people's chants for more.