Sacred Machines: Drew McDowall

Industrial veteran Drew McDowall has spent the last 40 years exhuming awe and wonder from the mundane, creating ritual music from serendipitous moments, and finding magic in the most ordinary of spaces. A crucial member of British occult electronics group Coil throughout the 1990s, until the untimely death of founder John Balance in 2004, McDowall has been living in New York since 2000 and continuing his spiritual practice as a solo artist since 2012, creating mesmeric soundscapes from field recordings and modular processing, released as a series of albums for Dais Records.  

Performing on Thursday 15 June as part of the Conflux Festival opening concert at Plein 1940, McDowall will debut his latest album written through the horror, beauty and enduring mystery of the Pandemic on the multichannel Kinetic Sounds system.

Interview by Holly Dicker.

Can you tell us about the album you’ll be presenting at Conflux Festival?

The album is coming out next Spring. It’s pretty much finished but I wanted to take a pause, which I’ve really come to value since the Pandemic. At Conflux you’re going to hear it in its present state, like a little window into where I’m at in this process. It ties into consistent themes in my work: the idea of the sacred and the ineffable. When we talk about the human experience, it’s like trying to hold water in our hands. With this album I’m leaning heavily into the idea of things that just can’t be expressed with words, and the paradox of describing to yourself what you are doing. 

How does this translate in the studio and your working – or “living” – relationship with machines?

It’s based on generative processes: not necessarily computational, they’re based on modular systems of pseudo random or stochastic processes, which then I try and figure out what works. I might have a session generating ideas in my studio for one hour, and then it will be days, weeks or even months taking that, finessing it and making choices. It’s like using generative processes as a spark to kickstart the work. When I talk about generative processes, it’s something that I’ve created. These machines wouldn’t do it on their own, each module in that chain has the potential to do something, and often I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to put that together, connect all of those different modules to create some type of generative process that is going to give me surprising but meaningful results. So it’s not just a random mechanical process.

What other influences have informed this album, beyond the studio and your artistic human-machine processing?

I live on one of the busiest streets in Brooklyn. There’s always traffic and construction noise, and during the Pandemic the loudest sound was the sound of birds. One of the most inspiring things was riding my bicycle down Delancey Street in Manhattan, which is notoriously inhospitable, and there was no sound other than the sound of human activity and birds. I’ve been exploring that, how the sound of human activity and the fabric of our cities is as much nature as these kinds of rural, idyllic spaces. That was a thread, not an explicit thread, but now it’s woven into the album in a way that I can’t really unpick it. It’s become part of the fabric of the album: those feelings of awe around the Pandemic. The world was brought to its knees by this tiny virus, this nonhuman actor, this nonhuman entity that pretty much destroyed everything we thought we knew. There was much horror but also incredible beauty as well. It still is a hard thing to unravel. I think it’s better to not even try, but to just sit with the true actual mystery of it. I feel like our brains are all over cooked just with that word, but it’s there in the fabric of everything, and specifically in this piece of music. 

You’ll be presenting this album on elements of the Kinetic Sounds system, what excites you about presenting multichannel works?

When I do multichannel pieces, it feels like this is the way it’s supposed to sound. I like to take things spectrally and move them around the space and have the feeling of spatial movement. It allows me to really go in heavily on those areas that I love to explore: psychoactive, hallucinatory spaces, which are much more easily achieved when the sound isn’t coming from left and right. When you’re fully immersed in a space I find it’s much easier to tap into and create those unstable moments.


How much does audience participation or reaction factor into your work?

I don’t see the piece that I’m creating in a vacuum. I’m not approaching it from some  precious artist’s thing, like I’m doing this for myself and then if it accidentally gets out into the world, great. No, I’m creating it with the idea that it will be listened to, and it will be performed. It will be performed in public because, for me, that’s absolutely integral. The shared space is absolutely vital, and I love that there is no one type of space that feels magical. You can tap into that sense of awe and that sense of the sacred in any space. But it’s not guaranteed, either. That’s what I love and dread about performing. There are so many different factors converging on that moment and space, which can make it work or not. 

You’re basically orchestrating chaos, right?

I’m leaving room for that as well, for chance and possibility. That’s super important. I like to prepare well for a concert, but I always leave space for chance. So there’s always room for improvisation. It’s not this methodically prepared linear experience. There’s always space for serendipitous or chaotic things to happen.

This year’s festival theme is about challenging the human-machine dichotomy, exploring concepts like “Machine Hallucinations” and nonhuman forms of consciousness, and finding alternatives to the conventional narrative of man versus machine. How do you personally or creatively respond to this notion of Living Machines?

Humans are machine-creating entities. It’s kind of what makes us human as we know it. I think the most pressing thing – since the Industrial Revolution – is ownership. The Industrial Revolution was a huge extractive process. It affected humanity profoundly but most people didn’t get a say in how it affected them. And it’s the same thing with these Large language models (LLMs). They don’t exist in a vacuum. Someone owns these LLMs, and the vast computational power that they’re running on. And regular people are not going to get a say in how that affects them. I can definitely tap into the awe and wonder of the possibility of it, but I think the reality that is shaping up just now is that it’s gonna create massive displacement. It’s going to make everything more mundane. I’m not even going to use the word AI because I don’t think that we’re there yet. It’s very sophisticated algorithms, but it’s not “intelligence” in any way that we can relate to. That science fiction idea of Intelligent Machine is very compelling and it’s very seductive, and that’s what is being sold to us. But it’s just a way of sucking up everything that we own – all of human experience, art and culture – and then selling it back to us in a mundane or diminished form. And this is happening on a vast scale with huge resources. It’s just part of the ongoing process of Capitalism, making everything shittier and shittier, and selling it back to us. This is the more interesting question for me. It’s not even interesting, just vital: that nothing exists in a vacuum, we’re all absolutely inside of capitalism and it will extract the maximum from us, and give us the least back. So until we look at that, it’s hard to talk about the possibilities of AI without acknowledging that this will absolutely happen.  

Does this then create a greater sense of urgency to be human, to be creative?

That’s the contradiction, that we all live inside this. It’s important that we’re not crushed by our own atomized bubbles, that we create art, or do our human thing, whatever that is and that we fulfil it through relationships with other human beings, and hopefully we can create something from that context, rather than just being passive recipients.

What personally motivates you to make music?

It’s still that sense of awe and wonder. The idea of the serendipities or the chance, or out of nothing or my shared experience, I created something that I think is worthwhile, and that I want to share with other people. Plus it’s a compulsion, I feel like I don’t even have a choice. 

Read the article about Drew McDowall’s new album “Lamina”

Listen to Drew McDowall’s music:


Drew McDowall performs on Thursday 15 June 21:45h at Plein 1940. The Conflux Festival opening performances at V11 and Plein 1940, and the exhibitions at V2_, Roodkapje and UBIK are free of charge. For the rest of the program you’ll need tickets.


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