over 15 years John Balance and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson
of Coil, accompanied by numerous and varied collaborators,
have used sound to explore the fringes of what is known. Through
their music, they ride the visionary mystical current previously
channelled by the likes of John Dee, William Blake, Aleister
Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, ballasted with healthy doses
of humour, psychedelia and cosmic wonder.
music is in a state of constant flux, ranging from the subtly
inductive to the abrasive and confrontational, through some
and dance tracks. Their first record, 1984's How to Destroy
Angels, was a 20 minute ritual workout for gongs and bullroarers,
aimed at the "accumulation of male sexual energy".
The next 15 years saw the release of only three albums and
a handful of compilations, all full to breaking point with
dense and involving music, across a wide range of genres,
some of which still don't exist today. Recently Coil have
tapped a rich new vein of inspired productivity, and have
performed live for the first time since the early 1980s. Their
most recent releases - the deeply affecting, hypnotic tonal
shifts of Time Machines, Astral Disaster's cosmic
waves, gently lapping at the shorelines of infinity, and the
crackling, aetheric, melodic electronics on Musick to Play
in the Dark, Vols 1& 2 - can all be recommended unreservedly
to those with more precarious musical tastes.
by original Austin Spare and Aleister Crowley paintings, MARK
PILKINGTON spoke with John Balance over a glass of Coil's
favourite tipple, affectionately known as "The King's
Piss", at their home in the farther reaches of the West
images: Ruth Bayer, JB pics: Mark Pilkington.
album Worship the Glitch, is jointly credited to Coil
and ELpH. Who or what was ElpH?
Coil work under a number of pseudonyms, Eskaton, Black
Light District etc, but when we entered into the ELpH project
we felt compelled to do it, it was strange. Normally we have
a musical reference, we say "let's do an album in the
style of Cluster" (German '70s electronic drone group
MP), then we'll approximate it and go off at a tangent, but
with ELpH the three of us, myself Peter, and Drew McDowell
really felt that we receiving extraterrestrial messages transmissions
and we just went with it. The sound was designed by whoever,
or whatever, was coming through us. Throughout, the William
Burroughs phrase, "Stars splash the silver, answer back"
was behind the recording session. We did it in a week, and
for that week it was as if the transmission was in full flow,
and at the end of the week it stopped And we haven't got it
back since, which is why we haven't done another ELpH album.
We keep hoping that they - whatever it was - will contact
us again, because we really want to do one. Maybe it was a
Did you ever try to contact it through channelling or anything
I'm very wary of channelling, although having studied magic
I do know how to banish and protect. I think channelling can
be very dangerous. Several acquaintances have had negative
experiences with it
Having said that I might consider
it in the right circumstances.
Perhaps your equipment was somehow picking this up?
I don't know, it didn't feel like an electrical transmission
at all, it felt very fluid. It could have been something earthbound,
rather than extraterrestrial. An earth spirit or something
Whereabouts were you recording?
In Chiswick, London! The notorious Chiswick goblins at work!
Have you ever experimented with Electronic Voice Phenomena?
No. What we do is buy old tape recorders and use the messages
we find on those. But that's a different thing, found sounds
as opposed to found objects. I'm interested in that though,
Burroughs was also very interested in it. It's a bit like
people who pick radio waves up through fillings in their teeth,
and they can.
How has magic(k) seeped into your music(k)?
Well it has, totally. I've always been into magic, with Crowley's
'k', and studied it - I tried to buy stuff by Crowley when
I was young, but my parents absolutely refused to have anything
to do with it and actively discouraged me. I wrote to Alex
Sanders (King of the Witches), when I was 14, and he wrote
back to me saying thanks for writing, I'm very pleased that
you want to do this, but can you write back when you're 18.
He wouldn't accept anyone so young into his coven. I used
to worship the moon too, I'd encourage other boys at school
to do it to. I just instinctively did things like that. It
once got me into trouble. I was at school with the son of
David Tomlinson, who was in Bedknobs and Broomsticks
(a Disney comedy about witches). The two of us were taught
astral projection by a teacher and there was a scandal because
they thought there was some homosexual relationship going
on with the three of us, but there wasn't. I went to school
one day and there was David Tomlinson's limousine outside
- he grabbed me as I was coming off the school bus and asked
whether his son and I had a sexual relationship with this
teacher. From then on, all the teachers were watching me!
there was no specific point when you started practicing magick?
No, even as a kid I used to do it. I was an only child, always
talking to animals, fantasy creatures and spirits. I would
make little plasticine gods and make offerings to them. I
was just born with a pagan sensibility. I'm an animal, I've
never been a human - there's no difference between animals
and humans to me. I think that's one of the signs of a true
Some life experiences
can just jolt you into it. I had German measles really badly,
twice I think, and wasn't allowed contact with the light in
case I went blind. Shut in this dark room, that was like my
initiation, I imagine.
Was Alex Sanders your first contact with structured magical
Well, I'd say Max Ernst was, very obliquely. I realised he
was certainly a shamanic type. That's when I realised there
were a few magical people around. Up until that point the
only time I'd encounter witchcraft was when Anglia Television
would report horror stories about covens linked to peoples'
disappearances. That's when I realised how biased the media
was towards magic, and it all served to push me further in
that direction. Every time I came across some obstacle, I
became more determined in my belief that this was the correct
way to proceed with my life, and my work.
I then went to
university, but left after a term and joined Psychic Television
(early '80s experimental band formed out of Throbbing Gristle
by Genesis P Orridge and Peter Christopherson). Through TG
I was introduced to William Burroughs, and the general concept
of magic as a practicality in everyday life. Then in PTV we
all began to actively explore it as a group, and play with
it - provocatively, and perhaps dangerously. Genesis is magical,
and has his own path to follow - he tends towards organisational
stuff and likes to lead, but it's not our path. When that
soured, and divided and became too complicated, I decided
to do my own group, Coil. As soon as I discovered Austin Spare
I realised that we were loners, we practiced magick on our.
That's my style of magic, the shamanic way - and Spare was
definitely a shaman.
Do you think there's a distinction to be made between the
more ritualised path of Psychic
TV - perhaps more akin to the Western tradition of ritual
magic - than your own, more intuitive approach?
Well, the core of people in PTV were all shamanic, Genesis
is definitely, concretising ideas from various traditions,
but we assumed the mantle of organised religion, copying aspects
of The Process Church (see
article), Jim Jones and actual clerical stuff, and we
came across as a cult, but we were in fact individually practicing
sexual magic. So that was a camouflage, which eventually became
a trap that we had to break away from. I felt very strongly
that we had to get away from that.
There was a lot of negative attention to the cult-like
aspects of that scene. Was that something that you tried to
evade, or did you play on it?
We originally played on it, to be honest. And at that time
you could play with that sort of thing. It was only later
on, when Thatcher came to power and the government started
introducing repressive law reforms, the Video Nasty panic
began - everything we were playing with far more dangerous
and far more serious to be associated with. For our own good,
then, Coil had to disassociate ourselves.
When Gen got raided
by the police in 1992 (as a result of false allegations made
in a Channel 4 documentary about Satanic Ritual Abuse. A Psychic
TV music video was shown as 'proof of a such abuse', see FT:64:50),
in which they took years worth of rare archived material,
his response was to go to America. We weren't raided, but
we lived in fear, as we had equal reason to be targeted at
the time, and we had to clear our house out of anything that
could ever be found in any way provocative. It was horrible,
absolutely awful. I felt terrible for him, but Gen had a break
and was allowed to move on, whereas we lived in fear for five
years, never knowing whether the consequence of things that
we did quite innocently and legally back then might rebound
It seems that there are regular resurgences of claims of Satanic
Ritual Abuse, but do you think that those dark days have passed
Well the focus has now changed to paedophilia, hasn't it.
The pendulum has swung round to another target group. Satanists
are safe for a while!
You're accused of using satanic imagery
That's Pan, there's a huge distinction. I'm not a Christian,
Satan does not exist in my cosmology. Not even on a rock 'n'
roll Marilyn Manson level, or an Anton LeVay level. That's
showbiz Satanism, I don't buy into any of that at all. Pan
is certainly one of my deities, one that I find solace and
power in. Pan represents zero, the void, and nature, both
aspects. The wild side. It's hedgerows. My core belief is
that instead of the Millennium Dome they should have planted
forests, all the hedgerows should be restored. That's my magical
feeling at the moment, rather than anything ritualistic or
Crowleyan - to restore the countryside is imperative. Someone
accused us after our first concert (at the Royal Festival
Hall, London 1999) of being tree huggers, and I thought, what
the hell is wrong with that. "We will fight them in the
beeches", as they say! I've heard now that if you're
a member of Earth First, you are labelled a terrorist, it's
what MI5 are now spending their time looking into. It's insane.
Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Austin
Well, I have a very intimate relationship with Spare. He's
my mentor. I communicate with him through his pictures and
often ask his advice, as an ancestor. A lot of his beliefs
were shamanic and to do with ancestor worship. I don't have
a very close connection with my ancestors, my real family,
other than my mother's parents, so I talk to Spare for advice.
I think he still exists, in his art and in the aether. He's
around as a helper. Sounds a bit flaky doesn't it, maybe I
should couch it in cyber terms!
I suppose the best art - painting, writing, photography, music,
film whatever- acts like a time machine, transporting you
to another mind, time or space.
I'd view it as a magical current. Austin Spare had people
who came through for him, spirit guides, and there are magical
currents. He may have opened up a gateway or whatever, but
now it's flowing in trickles, rivulets, even streams. That's
why it's very important that we flash Zos Kia Cultus - Spare's
magical philosophy or code - and his images onto the screen
at our performances, to energise Spare's current and put our
own energies into it. To make it a living, breathing, energising,
wonderful thing. By Cultus I don't mean a cult, but a way
of life, a philosophy, a code, which puts me in touch with
what I really, truly should be doing on this planet.
or Spare, there's no difference between our philosophy, our
lifestyle and our art. This is what we do. We are what we
do. What Spare did in art, we try to do through music. This
is why we do sidereal sound. The way he twisted his pictures,
so that the geometry appears warped, we try to do that, to
produce strange geometries through sound, so that it comes
out sideways. We do it with technology, with 3D devices, phasers,
out-of-phasers, all sorts of gizmos. There's no one particular
box that does it, we all do it any possible way that we can.
When we play our next gig, in France (at the Montreau Jazz
Festival!), we'll hopefully be using quadraphonic sound. Spare
used to do speaker battles, where he would project sound into
the aether - which I think is a real physical thing, some
kind of cosmic glue - a genuine substance, or non-substance
- that connects everything and allows unexplained things and
ideas to be transmitted.
Is there a particular type of person who you find collects
People with integrity. He really sorts the bullshitters out.
You either get Spare or you don't. Although they're often
decorative, the intention behind the decoration often hits
you first. Most people who come into contact with Spare's
work come away from it with something positive. There's a
massive power there, he imprinted each picture with a power,
purposefully. They resonate on a psychic level, some more
than others, but they all have a power that transmits to you.
You can commune with them and they change. Some of the chaotic
ones, you look at them with one person and see certain things,
and you look at them with another person and you see a completely
different set of things. Every piece he did was magical. There
were some that were done for other people specifically as
magical spells, such as the stele or the magical alphabet.
But he lived his life as a magician and a stoic. He could
survive for a week on a kipper.
Psychedelics have become a more apparent theme in the more
recent Coil material
And paradoxically we don't do them any more! We were so busy
doing them before that we didn't get any records out! After
Horse Rotorvator (1987) we were completely psychedelicised
for about five years, and hooked up with Terrence McKenna
- "Coil rule!" he said in an email. It's a great
shame about his death, though I'm sure he wouldn't see it
in those terms, but as a transformation.
He's with the Machine Elves now.
The self-transforming Machine Elves.
Psychedelics must have transformed the way you approached
sound. How do they relate to the Time Machines project?
They did more than that. I was taking magic mushrooms from
the age of 11 - a lot, until I was about 18, just at school.
And they never did a bad thing, always taught me wonderful
things. They taught me how to appreciate music and eventually
told me to make music. As I've said before, I feel that I
was brought up by mushrooms. They are teachers. Time Machines
is explicitly to do with combining sounds with psychedelic
tones. The Harmaline B molecule, like any other complex alkaloid,
is represented as a ring, but when you take DMT, or Yage or
Ayahuasca, there's also a ringing tone, a psychic tone. And
with DMT there's a kind of crumpling sound. So Time Machines
was inspired by Terrence McKenna's idea that Time Machines
will only ever appear here once they have been made, and will
come back to us.
Dennis McKenna, Terrence's brother, he described hearing
the sound of his DNA singing while using Ayahuasca.
yes, he's the one who went furthest out of that lot.
So the intention was to create a musical time machine?
Yeah, but you don't have to be on the drugs mentioned on Time
Machines at all. It's an attempt to recreate some of these
psychedelic states using sound. And we did extensive research,
testing whether these tones would actually transport you.
The ones that did we titled and put on the record.
were some I'd not come across before, like Hecate. Was this
an Alexander Shulgin creation?
Probably, we got it off Spiral Tribe (an early '90s travelling
'rave' community), who called it DOET. It's a very strange
compound, we took it several times in Thailand. Once we were
in Shang Mai, a town in North Thailand, originally a walled
city with a moat around it, though it's spread further out
now, we were standing by the moat, alongside these old ramparts,
probably 14th century. At first we got the usual euphoria
and heightened sense of awareness, of the luminous majesty
of everything, then, as we took more, it all crumbled as the
layers of time stripped away and the ground became bare fields
again. So that's where the whole Time travel thing came from.
But if you went
further on DOET you found nothingness, all your sensory input
would meet this absolute nothing. Not even a void, as that
gives it a name, it was just a greyness. Then you'd come back
and it was an hour later. Very strange.
Sort of a sensory overload, like white noise?
Yeah, it was like that. We're tempted to do a five CD Time
Machines box set, with a whole CD dedicated to each tone.
The whole thing would be dedicated to psilocybin. That's a
very benign substance. I'm an admirer of mushrooms.
A mycophiliac? But I haven't taken any of these things for
Do you miss them?
Do they miss me? I don't know. It's like Terrence McKenna
said, once you've been there, why go again? I'm more tempted
to go to Mexico and do Peyote with the Huichol Indians. I
need to move my area of psychedelic learning to another place.
If I went to Yucatan or Palenque, and took mushrooms there
with shamans, that would be more appropriate. I don't really
appreciate England at the moment, and I don't want to learn
anything psychedelically in this country
Did you see that
programme on lemurs recently? One of them had a big poisonous
centipede and it kept putting it into its mouth and chewing
it, and this lemur was clearly tripping out! Its eyes were
rolling back, and it almost fell out of the tree and kept
doing it over and over again. I wish William Burroughs had
seen that, I'll have to tell him in a dream.
On the subject of dreams, by monitoring their brain waves,
scientists have found that birds practice their songs while
they sleep. How important are dreams to you and your music?
I lucid dream all the time. Through astral projection I learnt
to do it at will. And now I don't astrally project anymore,
but I reckon one out of three dreams I have is a lucid one.
It's quite exhausting. I'll set myself tasks, like banishing
dark areas, or just go around knowing it's a dream, but it's
not like sleeping, you've just been round talking to all these
people all night.
I suppose in many ways you're not actually sleeping, because
your brain is still acting as if you were awake.
I'm not sure what the brain actually does. But I feel incredibly
privileged. Then you also fly. I've had situations where I've
been dreaming in my house and the layout is exactly the same,
not distorted like in a dream. And I've asked myself, "Is
this a dream?", at which point I've leapt up into the
air and taken off. There's a huge sense of euphoria when you
start floating around. I like to show off in my dreams!
Have you ever
experienced precognitive dreams?
No, but - and this is absolutely true - our first ever album,
back in 1985, was going to be called "Funeral Music for
Princess Diana". That was based on a dream I had. I was
sure she was going to die prematurely. I can't remember how
she died in the dream, though I don't think it was a car crash.
Your recent live performances at the Royal Festival Hall
were powerful, both physically and psychically, how do you
go about creating something like that?
We try to put magick in the music, and we do a lot of preparation
for that, from finding the right frequencies on the modular
synthesizers to using the right incense, or the right colours
on the screen. We usually take stuff from Crowley's book of
magical correspondences 777, and mix it with intuition
powerful, but we definitely don't aim to injure! In Thailand
we came across this drug rehabilitation unit that was also
for psychiatric patients. They would use loud noises to exorcise
the spirits, and basically they'd be amplifying buzz saw on
either side of your head with big speakers and banging gongs
and completely freaking people out, but they were doing it
to banish spirits. So the last gig, Constant Shallowness
Leads to Evil we were attempting to do something like
that. We're building it up and want to do bigger versions
of it, to shake the bad stuff out. Look at what's happening
now with everybody's mobile phones - peoples' brains must
be completely scrambled. This is what we're trying to do in
concert, to blank this out, through the use of white light,
white noise and video projections. Hopefully we can provide
some sort of safe area where all that is not going on, to
allow people to be themselves in that particular time / space.
Outside you just can't avoid it anymore, what with visual
pollution from advertising, noise pollution, both audible
and inaudible, microwaves. That's one of the things we're
trying to negate.
How does it feel now, having not played live for almost
Strange. I reached a point in my life where I've learnt a
bit, I've absorbed a lot and I've got a lot of things, and
now I want to put it back, put myself at the service of the
current that we're living. If I'd approached it at an egotistical
level I would never have got on stage. I'm really nervous
and shy. I can hardly speak to people in shops, let alone
on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. I just feel that I'm
doing this as a duty.
A lot of people would describe your music as dark, though
it's less so now, you're letting the
light in. Is that a conscious decision?
Well it's partly age, though I'm not mellowing, I'm getting
angrier if anything. It was "a complete derangement of
the senses" as Rimbaud said, that was always what I was
aiming for earlier on. I was much more into chaos, and punishment
almost. If I stayed up I'd stay up for five days, if I did
live performance it would involve blood enemas and cutting
myself up. And then I realised that it's OK to do that, but
we wanted to make music that would take people places, be
more constructive if you like, both for myself and others.
I was literally destroying myself in creating these things,
certainly Love's Secret Domain (1990) - it was very,
very heavy making that album, drug wise and in all sorts of
ways. So we thought, let's try to do music that's more healing
or holistic, but not in a New Age way as it can still involve
noise and abrasion, but the intention behind it is healing.
It's just a different approach really, I'd never say we'd
We like to think
of what we're doing now as Moon Musick. When we lived in Chiswick,
by the Thames, we became very aware of the tidality of the
river, we'd go down there every evening. So we decided to
move to the sea. We'd become lunar, switched into this lunar
phase. The first thing we did, How to Destroy Angels,
which was a conjuration of Martian energy, male, homosexual
energy. In fact people claimed that it was misogynist, and
Rough Trade almost wouldn't stock it - a controversy in a
tea cup. But now we're in a lunar phase, very moon orientated.
Arabic culture uses a lunar calendar, they have moon letters
and sun letters, and the pre-Christian celts also used a lunar
calendar. It's so much more natural. I'm on a mission to put
the moon back into perspective. So like Sun Ra came from Saturn,
we, at the moment are at the moon. Maybe we'll reach Saturn
Coil releases are
available from Threshold
For more information
about Coil, visit the excellent Brainwashed