Though he’s now based in Brooklyn, modular synth wizard Drew McDowall was born and raised in Paisley, Scotland – just outside of Glasgow – and came of age during a time when the city was one of the most dangerous places in the world. That environment led to a few rough-and-tumble years in the local gang culture, but McDowall eventually escaped that path and threw himself into punk and experimental music.
In 1978, he formed art-punk outfit Poems with his then-wife Rose McDowall (who would later gain notoriety as part of new wave duo Strawberry Switchblade). Following a move to London, he linked up with the city’s burgeoning industrial scene, and eventually became a member of both Psychic TV and Coil.
Upon leaving those groups and landing in New York, McDowall formed Captain Sons and Daughters with Kara Bohnenstiel (the group is now known as CSD) and teamed up with Psychic Ills’ Tres Warren as Compound Eye. Last year, after much cajoling from Dais Records label owner Ryan Martin, McDowall released Collapse, his first-ever solo LP under his own name (previous solo efforts were released under the Screwtape moniker); the album showcases McDowall’s uniquely hypnotic mix of dark frequencies, occult drones and collage-style sampling.
In a recent conversation with Vivian Host for RBMA Radio, McDowall looked back at his storied career, offering up some wild accounts of his youth, discovering tape loops and how punk rock quite literally saved his life.
I loved my fellow gang members, but I was also markedly different from them as well.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about the time you were born into.
I was born in Paisley in 1961. Paisley is an interesting place. It’s part of the metropolitan area of Glasgow but it’s a separate town. It’s really kind of rough. By the time I was growing up, industry had pretty much collapsed. There was tons of unemployment. Lots of abandoned buildings, which is great when you’re growing up. It’s the funnest thing to explore abandoned buildings.
It wasn’t that long after the Second World War, so there were also a lot of abandoned bomb sites. There were these abandoned gun emplacements, hills that were scooped out and had all these labyrinths of interconnected rooms where they would store ammunition and stuff like that. As a kid, there was an endless source of fantasy.
Not to spend too much time on the gang thing, but was that what everybody did?
Yeah. It depended on your circumstances and where you were living. It wasn’t everyone, but for me it was a survival mechanism. It was also something that I loved. I can’t deny it – it was a massive adrenaline rush from something that was initially a form of self-protection. I wholeheartedly threw myself into it. I loved my fellow gang members, but I was also markedly different from them as well. I would do more and more extreme things in the gang to try and make myself feel more like part of it. The gang was massive, probably 50 or 60 people. I ended up in a really hardcore element of the gang. We were a core group called the Suicide Hun that was seven or eight people that were just lunatics. I managed to come out relatively unscathed with only a few physical scars. Other people ended up worse than me.
What were you wearing back then?
It was kind of a post-skinhead, suedehead-type thing. We called ourselves skinheads but we weren’t, really. There wasn’t any kind of racial bias thing going on with us; that wasn’t really a part of Scottish culture in any way, which I love dearly about Scotland. Partly that’s because at the time there was so much religious bigotry and it kind of soaked up everything else. We would get clothes tailor-made for us. We were 14-year-old kids wearing tailored suits… We had ambiguous sources of income.
To be cheesy about it, punk rock completely saved my life. The trajectory I was on at the time only had bleakness at the end of it.
Were you going out to fight in these fancy suits?
Yes. Absolutely. It was ridiculous. Sometimes fights would just happen. You might be wearing your rolled-up jeans and your Docs, but yeah… It was really bizarre. We would basically get dressed up in our suits and tailored shirts with castle pockets. We’d have these customized coats we would wear that had inner pockets where you could conceal weapons. It sounds so horrible, but at the time it didn’t seem so weird. We would just get up to all sorts of crazy stuff. We would just invade other gangs’ territories, provoke fights and likewise. There wasn’t much else going on.
But eventually you got more into music.
I had a friend who got me out of the gang life. He was eventually killed very shortly after that. He wasn’t in a gang and he got caught up in a gang fight and was murdered when he was 16. That was a couple months after he introduced me to punk rock.
Punk rock had just started when I was about 16. Everything started to fall together then. I immediately wanted to start making music. To be cheesy about it, punk rock completely saved my life. The trajectory I was on at the time only had bleakness at the end of it.
The people that were my fellow gang members were threatening my life and it got really dicey for a few months where I lived, because you’re not supposed to just get up and leave the gang. It’s an unwritten rule. Once you leave, you’re no longer protected and you’re an enemy. I had to take measures to protect myself. For about a year or so, I was always looking over my shoulder.
One of the interesting things – and this was one of the things I loved about punk rock – was that a lot of the members of the rival gangs that I was fighting with also got into punk rock and we became friends. A lot of people that were my sworn enemies when we were 14 and 15 became my best friends and we were going to punk gigs together and forming bands. It was incredibly inspiring and really optimistic for me to see.
We had a gentleman in our town by the name of Tommy Keys, an anarchist printer who ran a record label. He was this kind of weird locus. He was an older guy who was a mentor to all these punk rock ex-gang kids. We would hang out at his house with him and his girlfriend and he had a lithograph press printing out these anarchist texts. He would turn us onto Situationist texts and politics and bands like Throbbing Gristle, where just a few months earlier we were wearing tailored suits and fighting each other. It was just so strange and just so right.
Were most of the bands you were going to see local or were bands coming from London as well?
One of the things that was really great was this venue called the Silver Thread that was maybe a five minute walk from where I lived. It was a little fortuitous for people in Paisley. The Glasgow Council [local government] had issued a ban on punk rock. A lot of places in the UK did at the time. They got really spooked that these kids were listening to punk rock. But there wasn’t much of a local government in Paisley and so no one was really paying attention.
I couldn’t stop playing [The Faust Tapes] and trying to figure it out why in the hell someone would make something like this.
The Silver Thread started putting punk gigs on and bands would play in Paisley rather than playing in Glasgow. Very quickly, we got exposed to the best of what was going on… Bands like the Buzzcocks, when Howard Devoto was still in it (before he formed Magazine). That was one of the first bands that I saw, and bands like Alternative TV. It was the leftfield punk rock stuff that really inspired me, and bands like Subway Sect and The Prefects.
Tell me about the first band you formed, Poems.
I actually ended up buying a real tape recorder, a Ferrograph Series 7 reel-to-reel, and started to make tape loops. Then I got together with Rose [McDowall, later of Strawberry Switchblade], who became my wife. She played drums, I did these tape manipulations and we had a guitarist. We formed this band called Poems. We were heavily influenced by punk in terms of the DIY aesthetic and what it could do, but the band wasn’t so punk-sounding in and of itself.
Most of the recordings are gone now. They were kind of destroyed in a fire. One or two things were released but we did a bunch of stuff that was very heavily experimental. We were drawing on our resources or friends… We had Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice playing on these crazy, Krautrock-influenced but fairly inept recordings. We didn’t have a really clear agenda other than not to sound like everyone else. If anything we did sounded like someone else we would halt and get onto another track. None of us were really musicians. Rose was a drummer but she’d never picked up a drumstick until we formed the band. Ian could play guitar a bit so we made him play bass. I couldn’t play guitar even slightly. If there was any guitar needed I would play guitar. I think the agenda was just to be as contrary and as difficult as possible.
Orange Juice was a really important band for you, right?
I really loved punk rock but I was getting tired really quickly of the machismo element… I shouldn’t really single out punk rock – rock and everything around had this stupid machismo. In Scotland, it was particularly crude and bad. What I liked about Orange Juice was that they were unashamedly twee and practically effeminate. They really didn’t care; they delighted in rubbing their twee sensibilities in your face. Calling themselves Orange Juice. Calling the label Postcard. There was a massive effort to all of that which I just found incredible.
Was that the beginning of the Scottish twee sound, which people now know because of bands like Belle and Sebastian and the Pastels?
It was absolutely the beginning. No one else was really doing that then. There could be no Belle and Sebastian without Orange Juice. It’s a real direct lineage; all of those bands would acknowledge that.
From the beginning you were kind of messing with equipment and electronics and not necessarily making rock music that was only drums, guitar and bass. Who was giving you these ideas?
One of the first really extreme records that I got was The Faust Tapes. The reason I got it was that it was selling for 50 pence and that’s how much money I had on me. It was not something I immediately liked, but it was something I was hugely fascinated with. I couldn’t stop playing it and trying to figure it out why in the hell someone would make something like this. I would play it endlessly. It was very different from everything else I was listening to. It definitely sowed the seeds. A couple of years later when I was making music, that was at least in the background, if not consciously part of it.
Throbbing Gristle and their use of tape most definitely influenced me. The first Throbbing Gristle record I heard was The Second Annual Report. It didn’t make me want to make music like that – because I knew that that was pointless – but to do something that wasn’t normal. I was also very much inspired by Mark Perry of Alternative TV and his whole thing where he printed out three chords and said, “This is all you need to know. Go out and form a band.” Then the flipside of that was – and I can’t remember if it was Sleazy who said it – “Why do you need three chords?”
Actually, the tape deck was a really happy accident. I had gotten the tape deck to record with. Then I was in Patty’s Market, a flea market in Glasgow, and I bought a whole bunch of used tapes and the stuff on them was so strange. I knew about the concept of tape loops, so I started making loops of this material. I mean, I had no real background and no real education in the history of musique concrete, tape music or experimental music. I was just sort of fumbling my way through it from the couple of cultural references that I was clued into and my own innate curiosity. There was one tape that was so badly eroded that the source material wasn’t really recognizable, but it was really bewitching. I made a tape loop of that and that ended up being the first Poems 7" “Achieving Unity.”
It’s weird how you have those happy accidents and then later they end up becoming central to your sound or your being.
Sometimes one finds something early in life that you really stay true to, even though the actual form and practice itself mutates over the years. There’s something about that seed of it that stays with you. I was thinking about this yesterday, actually. One of the big influences on me before I even knew about psychedelics was that I used to have really bad migraines when I was a kid. I didn’t even know they were migraines. For me it was a weird secret. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I couldn’t even describe what it was like – the experience was so bizarre and full-on.
That stayed with me throughout my life: that initial opening up of those gateways through something that was a defect in my brain or an illness, or something carried through to psychedelic exploration, to now my influences and the dreams and nightmares I have. I don’t think we get to escape those early experiences. Those little flashes that come from nowhere stay with us for the rest of our lives, in a good way. They inform us.
Since you’ve been making music for so long, can you identify other things that are constants for you or certain musical vibes you’ve always gravitated towards?
My tastes in music are hugely catholic; they’re very wide. The music that I love listening to the most and the music I’m happiest making is the stuff that has a sense of something off-kilter and just out of the norm – essentially psychedelic, I guess. I’m really conscious of the feeling when I get it but I try not to pin it down too much with words. It’s not so much a transcendent feeling but more of a feeling of eminence. The feeling of being completely... I guess it’s a feeling of a loaded moment. The moment that you’re in when you’re creating this piece of music is packed with itself, if that makes sense?
Do you mean that feeling that things are happening that you’re not necessarily making happen, like there are forces at work that are out of your control?
I’ve always really enjoyed that feeling of losing control when one’s making music. It was certainly a huge part of Coil. We often felt that we were channeling other entities. Sometimes it’s really good when it’s very process-driven and analytical, but the best is when there is a sense of abandon. This is where music really works the best for me, when it has that completely abandoned sense – that derangement of the senses that we all know and love.