Compound Eye are swiftly entering into the coveted periphery of New York City’s musical consciousness. With their debut LP Origin of Silence (The Spring Press), Drew McDowall and Tres Warren mark out a sound that is as traditional as it is experimental. Their drone, motif, repetition and electronic synthesis could be the vibrations of a new sound of occult mysticism, owing little to anyone who could be considered contemporaries.
McDowall has a rich musical history. With his involvement in both Psychic TV and Coil, he has amassed a discography that could arguably form the nexus for industrial music. Over the last seven years, Warren has traversed the bounds of psychedelia and minimalism with his band Psychic Ills, while his other group Messages taps into the beautiful Eastern energies still resonating in New York’s Lower East Side.
Drew and Tres recently took some time out to speak to Dossier about their new band Compound Eye. With minds such as these (and music criticism in the state its in), who better to conduct the interview than themselves?
Tres Warren: What are some everyday sounds that you like?
Drew McDowall: I’m really into the sound of cicadas. I love the way that they change tonality from daytime to evening – the soft, lazy way that a couple of cicadas buzzing on a summer afternoon changes by evening into this incredibly intense alien chorus. I could never get bored of that. Another sound that I like is in this huge old warehouse building that has some high voltage transformers that hum at 60hz and at the higher order harmonics too. The structure of the building resonates with the sound, so as you walk around the space your perception of the harmonics change and your cannot pin down where the sound is coming from so you walk around immersed in this shifting gauzy sound-field where even moving your head a few inches changes the timbre and direction of the sound. What was the first sound you heard this morning?
Tres: Pigeons roost outside my window in my shaftway and they warble sort of a collective drone every morning before the sun comes up. It used to annoy me, but now when I’m not sleeping at my place, I find that I miss it. What is your favorite place to be, outside of New York?
Drew: The desert, Death Valley. Apart from it being one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been, I love the silence. It’s an all encompassing silence that even the sound of someone talking or a car passing in the distance does nothing to disturb, but instead those transient sounds are swallowed up by the silence. It makes you realize that true silence is not the absence of sound but is instead a thing in itself. Do you feel a sense of landscape or physical space affects your work?
Tres: You can touch both walls of my basement apartment if stretch your arms out. I’ve learned to live this way and don’t mind it too much, but it feels like there’s another space in my mind that I might be referencing consciously and unconsciously when I’m working on music – maybe places I’ve been or want to be. Where or when have you experienced a mind altering/conscious altering phenomenon? One that related to a physical space, not to anything you had ingested?
Drew: The most recent was in in the Catskills. It was around 3 am and I was out walking around in the dark looking at the stars when I experienced an intense visual distortion. It felt like being under fast moving water. The air was rippling intensely in front of my eyes from ground level to around to a height of around 10-15 feet. It completely surrounded me and didn’t feel like a visual disturbance or a trick of the light. It felt profoundly other, numinous.
Tres: What’s your favorite thing to generate sound with at the moment?
Drew: Probably my modular synthesiser. I try to patch it so that it’s always on the verge of instability, so that you feel that even breathing on it will cause the sound to fall apart. It should always be organic and always feel like you are one slight misstep from chaos. How do you feel that the way we approach music together is different from the way that you work with Psychic Ills or Messages?
Tres: I guess they’re all similarly different. we’ve been getting together intermittently for what? Four years? And mostly on Sundays. It seems like the recording process is a larger part of the equation with Compound Eye since we mostly get together and put something new down or add something to something we’ve been working on. I guess its largely a recording project. But we have been jamming lately, and played the show at Printed Matter.
Drew: You have an interesting collection of instruments. How did you come across them?
Tres: I’ve gotten more synth stuff since we’ve been working together and will probably keep adding to the foundation of what I have anytime I’ve got some spare change. Your advice on that subject and most others is always welcome. Surprisingly, some of the non-traditional instruments, like the shruti box and ukelin, came to me as gifts. Being from Scotland, do you have any nostalgia or interest toward the bagpipes? They seem like a drone instrument that is under-discussed outside of the classical realm.
Drew: The sound of the bagpipes influenced me enormously growing up and it’s always something that I’ve explored, not always consciously, from the first time that I started making music to this day. Not the sound of the bagpipes as such, although I do love the sound, but the underlying principles of it, the multiple concurrent drones and the basic instability of the pitch. That idea was one of the motivations underlying Time Machines (Coil/Time Machines).
Tres: Is there any other music or sound that you associate with being there or then that you don’t necessarily come in contact with now? For me, I just heard Amazing Grace being sung at my grandmother’s funeral and it reminded me of being in church as kid. I was never into to church, but I always liked the music – it was nice to hear.
Drew: There is a type of bagpipe composition called Pibroch that you don’t hear much outside of Scotland. It’s for solo bagpipe and is usually a lament for a fallen comrade. Pibroch is semi improvised although with some very formal guidelines. It’s part of the martial traditions of the bagpipe and is incredibly poignant and beautiful. What are you playing in the background there?
Tres: Henry Flynt and Catherine Christer Hennix Dharma Warriors. And there?
Drew: Today I’ve been listening to Stockhausen Stimmung, Bobby Beausoleil Lucifer Rising Suite and The Circle Is Unbroken by Incredible String Band. I was struck, as always, by how vulnerable and exposed Robin Williamson’s voice is on that song. Have there been any films that you’ve watched recently that have surprised you like that?
Tres: I’ve been slacking on watching films lately, but was re-checking Jud Yalkut’s Godz movie recently. And I’m similarly obsessing on the title sequence of Soylent Green – a work of art.
Drew: And visual art?
Tres: I bought a print called True Happiness from Powell St. John, an artist/musician from Texas. It’s a real cool drawing of two skulls. He wrote some songs that the 13th Floor Elevators did; I just wanted to have a piece of that feeling around. I’ve also been looking at the Wallace Berman Semina Culture book a lot again, endlessly inspiring.
Photographs by Benedict Brink