Archive: an interview with Coil

Coil were a hugely influential UK experimental/industrial music group formed in 1982 by John Balance and his lover Peter Christopherson. Following the tragic death of John Balance on 13 November 2004, Peter Christopherson announced that Coil as an entity had ceased to exist.

I was fortunate to interview both men around thirteen years ago. I came across this interview in my archive today, and thought it worth re-publishing, as it was only ever made available in a limited circulation print title I then ran. It’s available here now as a gesture of respect for the band.
JR: Tell us about your new album?
COIL: I had this Lovecraftian idea that somehow something from another planet, an intelligence was guiding our music. We did an album as ELPH and that was absolutely this – the idea that something was guiding you rather than just doing a rock album.

JR: It seems that the hit film, Seven uses a Nine Inch Nails track remixed by yourselves without giving you credit?
COIL: NIN approached us to remix a track called “Closer”. The way we work and the way NIN knew we worked was to give us total carte blanche and they would release whatever we did, so we did an awful lot of work which we consider to be COIL work as opposed to just remixing to their specifications. We have no grudge against NIN or their management for this, but having been given one payment only to see it suddenly end up as the title sequence for a major film and our name dropped off…

JR: Charming!
COIL: It’s path of the course with film-makers but the reason we started faxing around as opposed to just keeping quiet like we usually do is that we feel it’s really time film producers and makers should get a kick up the arse!

JR: With the rumours of the Sex Pistols get-together do you feel good about it, like, will you be taking the photographs?
COIL: (Laughter – answers dryly), I don’t think I’ll be taking the photo’s.

JR: In retrospect did avant-garde punk as opposed to Sex Pistols punk go as far as it could have done?
COIL: I never understood why it was necessary to learn the three chords in the first place, I mean when we were doing Throbbing Gristle chords didn’t really come into it. For me punk was kind of a safe way of being outrageous. I didn’t find the sonic deviance very deviant. I was much more interested in the things that were going on around it…the people. At best it was trying to reach a new reality set. At worst it was getting new clothing. (Laughter). I think that’s always been the case. I think groups like Amun Dul, the original line-up cum collective were far more punk than anything that’s come since apart from Throbbing Gristle and stuff. As a fan I always thought Throbbing Gristle were the business as opposed to all those sort of chord-thrasher’s – The Clash and stuff.

JR: CGA – I mean The Clash often come to mind with people once involved in Punk rock … (Laughter).
COIL: The most exciting thing for me was and still is actually with any kind of new music and new social trend is the way that it allows kind of fringe sexuality and fringe sensuality and also psychiatry to have a momentary release from the back room – a kind of disruption of reality, if you like…

JR: The underlying theme of all your work seems to be sort of freedom, liberation, breaking taboos. From your perspective do you feel that it’s easier or harder to break taboos today – to challenge ?
COIL: I sort of – I mean with Transgression and Shamanism, I mean, magic is the last great underground movement that’s going to surface, I think, and it’s coming and it’s going to have immense repercussions and stuff but … then it’ll become a commodity and that’ll be sad. But it’s inevitable…

JR: Can magic become a commodity?
COIL: Yeah. Of course it can. Nature’s a commodity now. There’s always people who practice and keep…”Will and be silent” as the Witches say and there’s those that’ll sell what they think they know. Having said that I think that a lot of kind of youth culture, and I mean kids of 15, 18 and so on actually find it harder now to be quite as radical and daring as perhaps people who are a bit older. It seems to me that a lot of Brit Pop and things it’s like they’re seeking to be straight for the sake of safety. I think the reason a lot of people tend to seek solace in music that’s conventional is because the real world has got a lot more scary in the past twenty years. I mean people don’t seem to think the world’s changed very much in the last twenty years, but it has and it’s more dangerous and more frightening and more vicious. The velocity of change, the accelerated rate of change is so enormous now that either you opt in or opt out. You know…that’s where the dividing line is with information, either you’re in on it or out of it.

JR: It’s like with the CJA, censorship on the net, Operation Spanner – I mean, how paranoid do you feel you have to be about the creation of “Thought Crimes”?
COIL: Paranoid? You just have to be vigilant.

JR: Don’t be paranoid, be vigilant?
COIL: Well, be vigilant and do what you can to counter it and I don’t know how to counter it really except to demonstrate that alternative lifestyles can be viable and always be positive about it… It’s that basic really. I think there are so many forces in the media and in mainstream culture that portray things that are different as dangerous and as a threat that it’s essential really for people that are dealing with those sort of images and that kind of area of ideas to show actually that these things don’t have to be dangerous and they can be enriching, enlightening and actually make the world a better place. It’s our duty to remove the perceived threat in these things.

JR: I’m of the opinion that within these so-called “underground” circles, these so-called “subcultures” you’ve got the seeds for new developments for the good of society as a whole…
COIL: They’re essential. I mean, without those seeds the whole thing would collapse.

JR: Do you think that magic, like medicine, is the domain of a specialist or is it perhaps more organic, that happens all the time, perhaps despite yourself without being aware of it?
COIL: I think that small everyday personal magic is the domain of everyone who is aware of it. Specialist magic is the domain of specialists in magic. There are obviously degrees and experts keep themselves hidden. I think that everyone has a common sense instinctive knowledge even if they’re not aware of it, just as they have a common sense and instinctive sort of psychic ability or a common sense instinct/vision of what is happening to their families even if they’re not together and stuff. It’s part of life. The Government and the Health Service and the pharmaceutical companies and the army, the psychiatrists and everyone have a vested interest in keeping people’s instinctive abilities down, and always have done, because to give power back to the people – as always they’ve never wanted that. This is why they’re trying to outlaw complimentary medicines, which sounds the most ridiculous thing…

JR: You mean things like holistic medicine, aromatherapy?
COIL: Absolutely…

JR: (Shocked outburst) That’s ridiculous! I mean that’s been accepted in, say, Belgium for 20 years – it’s part of the health service over there!!
COIL: This is the fear of losing control that they, the powers that be possess. They don’t want to hand any power back to a people who have, you know, quite a strong instinct for magical healing. I mean this country, given a chance, can heal itself from this fucking evil Black Witchcraft that’s been looking after it for so long.

JR: Since the English Civil war perhaps?
COIL: Something to do with Cromwell, I think.

JR: The Ritual magic of the City Of London?
COIL: Well, that’s absolutely it.

JR: Music again. When you get together to make music…what’s the method of making music that works best for you as a unit?
COIL: Well, we sort of plan a long time and I personally do a lot of ideas and notebooks and gathering of stuff. I’ll sort of tap into sources or go to certain places…
…On “Black Light District” we visited Avesbury and we visited some stone circles on the West Coast of Scotland and drawing on the memories of that and the sort of energies we felt there we did music for that particular place – there’s one track called “Cold Dream Of An Earth Star” which is a mushrooms’ point of view of living in that place – the Psilocybin eye sort of thing. And when we’re playing together we’ll laugh ‘cos we know when we’ve gone off course with an idea, OK, this isn’t this track is it? We’ll start with a title and everyone will understand it vaguely and we’ll know when we go away from that…

JR: Do you get one of those tremendous thrills that one gets from time to time when it’s going right, though?
COIL: Yes. That’s when you know.

JR: I used to enjoy hanging out in gay clubs ‘n bars in the early 80’s when integration was in the air…has gay culture been pushed underground?
COIL: The opposite, I think. It’s been pushed overground which is a disadvantage as far as I’m concerned ‘cos for us part of the attraction was the very fact of it’s being underground and being part of a culture that was not absorbed by mainstream culture.

JR: Ah, right, so it’s been appropriated…
COIL: Yeh. It’s strange, the scene in London. It alternately tires and excites me, I mean in ’88 it excited me and I used to go down The Bell in ’82 and stuff in the early Psychic TV days, when people used to come up to me and say, “I know you, you drink blood, don’t you?” But now nothing out there at the moment particularly excites me. I mean MINTY when Leigh Bowery was in it and MINTY now, stuff like that… what seems shallow at first but then seems incredibly genuine and sincere and exciting again. There’s some good stuff happening again. But when you go to San Francisco in particular there’s that buzz , there’s some really good people doing small things on a personal level just like there used to be in ’88 and ’82 too.

JR: I remember the biggest buzz I ever found at a party was the amazing Mutoid Waste Party at Kings X. I still meet people inspired by it after all this time…
COIL: The power was landing there at the time. The mothership can only touch down at certain times in peoples lives.

JR: William Burroughs in “Where we are going” says that we are going “into space”…
COIL: I never really asked him whether he meant inner or outer space.

JR: What’s that mean to you?
COIL: I always thought the space race i.e. outer space was a complete ego, male, white thing – you know – we’ve trashed this planet lets go fuck up another. There’s enough places to go in the six inches around your head to make the need to leave the planet more or less unnecessary.

JR: OK. I’ve run out of bloody stupid questions. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to say, ‘cos this would be a good time to say it?
COIL: The people who are in the business of making money by selling records, books, plays, art are I think missing the opportunity to trust their audience, especially at the moment what I’m seeing is them producing records and plays and films and books that speak down to their audience.

JR: And here’s where the tape stopped. It comes down to this…in speaking down to the audience established cultural producers disempower the individual. There is a need for cultural producers who can empower the people with positive pictures of life as (at best) it is.

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