"Seeing Drew McDowall live is an experience of equal parts pain and beauty. Simply put, It is the work of a master."
All photos by Nikki Sneakers
My favorite performer over the past handful of years has been an unassuming, 54 year old Scottish man. If you regularly attend electronic shows in New York or if you have been fortunate enough to catch this guy on the road, chances are that our opinions on this matter might line up. His sets are nothing short of captivating; bringing the spectator to full attention and rendering entire rooms completely vulnerable, leaving those present emotionally pulverized to the point of near devastation. Seeing Drew McDowall live is an experience of equal parts pain and beauty. Simply put, It is the work of a master.
In 1978, Drew started his career in Glasgow with his post punk band The Poems (also featuring his then wife Rose McDowall, who would later become a household name in some circles through Strawberry Switchblade). After moving to London, he stepped away from guitar-based music and fell in with the burgeoning industrial community. Drew joined Psychic TV and began collaborating live with Coil, who he joined as an official member in 1994. During his tenure with Coil, he played on such classic albums as Astral Disaster, Musick To Play In The Dark, Worship The Glitch, Black Light District, and Time Machines. He also contributed heavily to the Nine Inch Nails remix album, Further Down The Spiral.
(Author's note: Drew has a pretty crazy past. Zachary Lipez sat down with him and talked about some of the gritty shit from his childhood in another interview for Noisey.)
When Drew moved to New York in 2000, he decided to part ways with Coil. He signed on for several collaborations, notably with Kara Bohnenstiel in the group Captain Sons And Daughters (CSD) and with Tres Warren (of Psychic Ills) in Compound Eye. Both groups received a good deal of acclaim and Drew became an essential cog in the gears of the New York City experimental music world. On any given night you will find him at a show, exuberant and visibly in love with the activities happening within the community around him. Ask anyone who regularly goes to live events around these parts who the most supportive people in the scene are, and Drew will appear towards the top of the list.
Drew's kindness is absolute and borderline infectious. It's damn near fucking impossible to be around him and not smile. That being said, it doesn't take long when talking to him to realize that kindness sits in proportion to an inner darkness. The darkness becomes more apparent when you sit through one of his solo sets, which he started doing regularly a few years ago. What occurs during these experiences is nothing short of a sonic exorcism.
Two notable releases of Drew's come out within the month. First up is his long awaited debut solo album, Collapse. A product of intense passion and dedication, Collapse is both an exercise of refined elegance and a meditation on internal destruction. It is a thing beauty and devastation in one; combining ambient drones with industrial rhythms, gut churning low end with glass shattering highs. For a man who helped define his craft and who has spent a lifetime refining it, Collapse is a new high point. Dais is already sold out of the first pressing of the record and the second one is going fast.
Also coming out is Backwards, Coil's heavily delayed album from the mid 1990's. Originally commissioned by Trent Reznor for Nothing Records, due to circumstance and distraction Backwards never properly saw the light of day.
After a nice meal at one of Drew's favorite North Brooklyn falafel joints (which he paid for because he is the nicest guy in the entire world), we went back to his apartment and had a good, long talk about Collapse, Coil, the creative process, and New York City.
Noisey: You've been a key collaborator in a number of well respected projects over the years, but Collapse is your first solo album. What made 2015 the right time to make a record of your own? What are the factors that played into the creation of Collapse?
Drew McDowall: Well, it was a long time in gestation. I'd been doing these collaborations and putting a lot of creative energy into things with other people. I started playing solo shows around 2012 and it kind of grew out of that. I think Nathan Cearley (Long Distance Poison) was the first person to ask me to do a solo show. I'd never even considered it before.
Was this the Modular Solstice?
Yeah, it was the first Modular Solstice. I'd been doing stuff on my own at home, but I'd never considered playing it live. Nathan basically strong armed me into playing the show. I didn't want to do it and he wouldn't take no for an answer (laughs). So I played that and I was finding that a lot of the ideas that had been using in Coil had gone unfinished, and a lot of processes in the back of my mind started to materialize. The seeds had been sewn but I'd never fully realized them. I wasn't ready to jump in and do a solo record right away. I wanted to really work through what I wanted to do, from the first iterations of the live material onward. I needed to go through several different cycles; taking sounds and folding them in on themselves, mutating them until it was right. It was Ryan Martin getting me in a headlock and pushing me to record that finally made it happen. He insisted that I do an album for Dais and encouraged me to see it through. Things just take time for me; I don't throw something together very quickly. Ryan first asked me to do an album in a casual way towards the end of 2012. After a couple of nudges here and there we started talking more seriously about it about a year or so ago. I started recording the album at the beginning of January. It was a lot of unfinished business. When I parted company with Coil they were going in a different direction with Thighpaulsandra, which was great. I'd moved to New York so after Musick To Play In The Dark I didn't feel like continuing to flying back to the UK to record. I felt that after all those years that this album was the culmination of a lot of the things I started back then.
It's not really about any one thing. I don't want to get too specific and nail it down, but there are definitely themes here that tie into my personal life. I felt like I was going through a crisis. My belief systems were going through a period of collapse, disintegration, and disillusion. That happens on a cyclical basis. This time, rather than resisting I decided to actually go with it, to immerse myself in those feelings for the purpose of doing a record. And it got really dark because I deliberately didn't use whatever tricks I have to stave off these feelings. I made it part of the process. Sonically I tried to mirror some of those feelings so there's almost nothing on the album that isn't basically destroyed. I would take a sound and I would reprocess it and mangle it to, you know… kill it. Basically there wasn't anything that was left in tact. I would sample an old beat up piano at this place upstate where I was. I reprocessed those samples dozens of times to where it was almost unrecognizable from its source material. That was basically the methodology for the whole record. I used a lot of modular synth but not in a very obvious modular synth kind of way. Almost everything is rerecorded several times to add layers and layers of decay. That kind of decay and disillusionment is what I was going through mentally as well. It was a very hallucinatory experience. I was getting by on an hour or two of sleep a day. I'd be working on music and I'd close my eyes and I'd go into an immediate kind of hypnogogic dream state and use that to propel me further. I was hearing what I wanted to do in this state. It wasn't even this kind of nice dream state; I mean it was good and I liked it, but it was also semi nightmarish. The titles of the record were coming out of that as well. Chimeric Mesh Withdrawls came from some bizarre dream that I can't fully translate. I had dreams that were so completely strange that they didn't correlate to anything in my waking existence. I can't even attempt to describe them and do them justice.
You describe your dreams through what you're making?
Yeah, that's it exactly, especially on the first side. A lot of it was going in having the architecture of the album through these hallucinatory experiences and then some of it was just pure chance, from working with the modular and working with the systems and feeling them almost like an entity. It felt like I was in this struggle against the hardware that I was using. Sometimes I would win, but sometimes the hardware would win.
It's been said by many participants in the New York experimental music community that you are the single most supportive person in the scene. You are at just about every show, standing up front for every set with a giant smile on your face. What is it that attracts you to to so much of what is currently going on? Do you have any particular favorites?
I go out to these shows because what's happening in New York right now is incredibly inspiring. We're at a high point in experimental electronic music, noise music. It's really reaching this apex. Right now is such a great time to be doing music and to be inspired by what people are working on. There are people in their 20's today who are doing music that's equally as good or better than what was coming out when industrial music first started. You know, someone like Pharmakon. What Margaret is doing is taking the industrial agenda and advancing that exponentially. Last night I saw Wetware. I mean… it was so good I can't even describe it (laughs)! Things like that really excite me. There's so many people making very exciting music here; like Ciarra Black, Nick Klein, Pure Matrix, Negation, Horoscope, Miguel Alvariño. What I love is the collision of noise and techno. It's so good! And it does make sense because Throbbing Gristle had elements there. The first techno pioneers were listening to AB/7A on Third Annual Report. That was a big influence on techno and vice versa. I really love those situations where the influence is circular; where A influences B influences C influences A. I think that's what we're seeing just now, and I'm constantly blown away. If people don't think there's anything good going on just now it's because they're not going out and seeing it. You can go out almost any night of the week in New York and find something good happening. That's why I don't sleep much (laughs).
After a 20 year delay, the original version of Coil's Backwards is finally seeing a proper release via Cold Spring this October as part of their Coil reissue series. I understand that this record was made in New Orleans at Nine Inch Nail's studio and was originally supposed to come out on Trent Reznor's Nothing label. What wound up happening to it? What can you tell me about those recording sessions?
Backwards is the Coil record that I was involved in that I'm the least engaged with. It has a really fraught history. I didn't really join Coil officially until '94, but before then I'd been sporadically recording with them since 1989. The Backwards sessions had started before I was a member. Trent put up a bunch of money for it, which they really wanted to take advantage of because they hadn't had that kind of a budget since Scatology and Horse Rotorvator. I think they were sort of muddling their way through it. I went to some of the original Backwards sessions just to be there and they were a little patchy, then when I joined they stopped working on it. Then maybe around '96 or '97 Trent was nudging them to finish it. I think the only way he felt he could do that was by flying everyone to New Orleans and basically camping out to make sure that the record got done. So it had really long periods of difficulty, and I think it sounds like that. It doesn't sound cohesive and it doesn't sound pure. I don't mean to be critical of it but it's definitely my least favorite Coil record. With every Coil record there's always been a guiding principle, there's always something behind it… I don't want to say a concept, but you know had a point. Backwards never had that. It was just a bunch of separate tracks that were worked on and left alone for years and then worked on again and I feel that it shows.
d reworked Sleazy took the tracks anthem into A New Backwards, which came out in 2007. I figured that that was the finished product, so it's interesting to see these original sessions being unearthed.
I actually haven't heard the recent record that Cold Spring put out so I've kind of lost track of which one is which. The only time I ever did vocals on a Coil record is on a Backwards session where Balance and I did alternating lines on one of the songs. I've never heard that since we recorded it. I wonder if it's in there (laughs)!
There's one way to find out (laughs)! Coil came to a very sudden, tragic end. It seems since the passing of Jhonn and Sleazy that the group has only grown in acclaim and legend. The majority of key Coil members and collaborators seem to keep active in various projects these days, from your stuff to Tim Lewis' Thighpaulsandra to Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown's Cyclobe and beyond. Do you still keep up with the other guys from the Coil camp? Would there be any chance of some or all of you working on something together in the future?
I completely adore Steven and Ossian. The work that they do in Cyclobe is incredible. I think that they are continuing the Coil mission. I feel like that with my stuff. I definitely don't consciously try to continue with anything but it's inevitable, you know? It's part of my DNA. I was part of Coil for a reason, thus it's inevitable that will surface in whatever music that I do. It's the same with Cyclobe. I mean, you can hear it. It doesn't sound like Coil, but it's informed by the same sensibilities. I would work with them in a heartbeat. I haven't heard Thighpaulsandra's new record.
So we've established that you aren't much of a Backwards fan. What Coil release that you were involved with do you find most effective and why?
Time Machines. Time Machines was my baby. I worked on that for ages before I shyly took it to Balance and Sleazy. There's always something to a Coil album and we had this idea… We wanted to have a record that was a way of escaping time. Time being the monster that it is (laughs), the ultimate horror. I had my setup at home and I was playing with all these tones and frequencies… and it did something! It had a powerful psychoactive effect on me. So I recorded it on DAT and called it Time Machine. I took it to Balance and he was like "yeah, this is it!" Weirdly, Sleazy took a little convincing. We started recording this stuff in the studio and he asked, "is this all gonna sound the same?" and we were like, "yeah." (laughs). So it took him a little bit before he completely endorsed it, but once he did he jumped on it and made it exponentially better than it was before.
There's been talk of an official, comprehensive Coil reissue series for years now but the project seems slow going. Is there any particular reason for this? What would you like to see happen?
Unfortunately a lot of the Coil archive has been sold off to the highest bidder. I don't want any money from anything like that. I would just love to see it be in a collection somewhere, like Genesis' collection in the Tate. I'd rather have everything donated than just sold off to some rich people. There are a lot of reasons why the Coil reissue discussions got stalled. Ossian sent me this really nice email a few moths ago and I was like, "Maybe I shouldn't just give up on it. Maybe I should see if there's any way to recapture some kind of momentum about getting the reissues done". So I tentatively sent him an email to ask what he thought about it. I'm paraphrasing completely, but Ossian and Steven want to concentrate their energies on their own creative endeavors rather than to get back involved with something completely uncommunicative. The discussions about the Coil reissues are so negative; they get really depressing. Some people thought they could get a big payday out of it. Me, Ossian and Steven; we just wanted the stuff to get reissued with someone good. Not a bootlegger, but someone to do it respectfully. I was communicating regularly with Thrower and Ossian and we were of the mindset that we wanted to do the right thing for the Coil legacy; not to be so highbrow or lofty about it. I mean, Balance and Sleazy deserve to have it done respectfully… and some people were being vultures about it. You know, there's a great Balance line about the vultures being your future.
Obviously a great deal of time has passed between Backwards and Collapse. How has your approach to creating music changed from then to now?:
I'm not sure that the process has changed, but maybe the tools. I use pretty much the same process I had from Worship The Glitch, Time Machines, the Black Light District album and the Equinox Solstice 7"s. It's very much the same process but as it was Coil it was collaborative so it was always, as in any collaborative process, a compromise. But with Coil the great thing was that the processes would become nourished. Often now when I listen to Coil records that I was a part of I can't tell what I did from Sleazy. With Balance what he did is a bit more noticeable because it's Balance and because of the vocal element. Even so, some of the things that ostensibly were me Balance was looking over my shoulder and pushing knobs, pulling out cables or pushing the synth off the table (laughs). Again, that was all part of Coil's methodology as well, the process of deterioration and degradation of sounds. It's almost the same mindset from then to now.
What's next for you? Any tour plans or other records and collaborations in the works?
I'm in the process of recording an album with Nicky Mao (aka Hiro Kone). That's really exciting. We're probably about 75% done with that. Obviously it sounds like a hybrid of my work and her work, and making it has been really inspiring. I'm doing a couple of other tape releases and then a mini tour of Providence, Montreal, Toronto, and hopefully Detroit and Cleveland. I'm gonna tour in blocks rather than do one long tour; a few dates here and a few dates there. I'm starting to record what will probably wind up being my next record. It won't be as condensed a timeframe as the last one, which I recorded over a period a couple of months… which is short for me (laughs).
How long does it usually take you?
I don't know. The Compound Eye record took like two years or something. There's a reason that it took that long and that's because… it's a little cheesy to say this but it felt like like Tres and I were having this long, drawn out conversation. We'd get together once a week, record, and do it over and over for like two years. That was the one that came out on Spring Press. Maybe the Mego one might have come along quicker, but not quick. After recording Collapse I thought I would be drained of ideas but the opposite happened, you know? It was tough finishing the record because I have a really, really hard time letting something go. I want to keep working on it. I was confessing this to my friend Kelsey Henderson and she just said, "You're never finished. Just stop it and take all of those ideas that you didn't get to use and put them towards the next project." I actually kept that in mind almost every day especially towards the end because otherwise I'd still be recording it right now. Also having a deadline was good. Dais weren't like, "Oh yeah, take your time with it and give it to us when you can." It was, "No, you've gotta get it done." So when I did finish I wanted to keep recording and now I have at least another record worth of material almost ready (laughs).