Muzik Magazine July 2002: Isness as Usual
Garry Cobain on FSOL's strange journey from acid house to spiritual enlightenment - and the maddest record of 2002
Future Sound Of London, as much as Orbital or Aphex Twin, defined post-acid house electronica, from 1992's classic "Papua New Guinea", and its accompanying Accelerator LP to three adventurous albums for Virgin (Lifeforms, ISDN, and Dead Cities). You probably own at least one of their records, and if you haven't heard "Papua..." you must have been sojourning on Uranus for the past 10 years. Judging by his madly psychedelic, prog rock comeback album The Isness, Garry Cobain (one half, with Brian Dougans, of FSOL) appears to have gone rather further out than that, mind you...
"On the track 'Galaxial Pharmaceutical', everything is separate and connected, like the universe itself," Cobain says proudly. "I'm a urine drinker and I created the boy band phenomenon" he adds.
In sandals, pale slacks and a white smock, he's holding forth in the duo's studio. Behind him is a poster of Shri Bagwan Ragneesh, the late Indian mystic who created a commune in Oregon notorious for its free love and ecstasy use.
Such imagery is entirely suited to The Isness, which is coming out under FSOL's nom de fou, Amorphous Androgynous. It sits in the headspace between deep space electronics, Ravi Shankar sitar-ism and "Space Oddity"-style songs. But how did FSOL arrive here from the electronic dancefloor experiments of "Stakker Humanoid" and "Papua New Guinea"?
"We were one of the most way-out, experimental electronic artists," exclaims Cobain with characteristic zeal. "We laid the groundwork for people like Radiohead, going where indie and rock needed to be. I realised, though, that I wasn't half as free as I thought. I was operating within my own prison walls, when people like George Harrison had plugged into esoteric theories, Taoism, Buddhism, Tantra, health food shops..."
But FSOL's progress to their current incarnation is as much about Cobain's fluctuating health as his desire to move on musically. He became very ill five years ago with asynchronous heart, arthritic joints, facial eczema, bad digestive problems and depression.
"When you're ill like that," he explains, "you purify yourself. The first things to go are the obvious ones - drink and drugs - but it slowly goes deeper and deeper..."
So Garry Cobain headed off across the globe in search of answers. From discovering the teachings of Bagwan Ragneesh with The Cult's Ian Astbury in LA, to investigating the effects mercury fillings have your immune system in Mexico, he eventually ended up "eating only organic wholefood steamed at certain times and going yoga. You strip away the layers and realise the person you thought you were doesn't exist."
During this spiritual quest, he also spent all his Virgin Records dosh.
"Brian invested in a penthouse in Old Street but I'm sleeping on a lilo from Argos in the studio," says Garry without rancour. "I don't need to own - I've come to understand that I'll always be alright."
So Cobain's not having us on. But what turned him on to that most reviled of musical forms, prog rock?
"Brian and I just came round to admitting we'd stopped spending £10 on double pack promos we'd get rid of in six months. We were buying Donovan, Traffic's 'Hole In My Shoe' - what a fucking weird record! In the middle of the song they go into birds tweeting, backwards sound effects, and then talk about being on the back of a giant albatross. Well, do I hear any musicians being as evocative, playful and childish as that now? No, because we're at the point where we're celebrating the miserable - radio pluggers, journos and A&R people dictate what records are being made. I want to present something so full of colour maybe people won't even understand it."
And indeed, maybe some people won't. Many of us will, though. Let the others play catch-up, like always.
Oh, and if you're wondering how FSOL invented boy bands...
"We made music that was insane and digestible but making the Top 10," says Cobain. "People reacted against that, they wanted something simple, so along came boy bands. Now though, culture is ready for exploration - the boy bands are creating me again..."
The Isness by Amorphous Androgynous is out on FSOL in July. A CD of "psychedelica mixed in a bizarre way" will follow later in the year.
"Curt Cobain" - Mr Amorphous snaps out soundbite knowledge on 2002
The World Cup "I fucking love football. I see beauty wherever there's flair. As a tennis player, I dance, and now other cultures are finally beginning to infiltrate English football so men are getting less scared of moving their hips."
Ketamine/cocaine cocktails "Whatever you need to unlock yourself from scientific rationale, do it. But never become a slave to it, use it until it ceases to be enlightening then move on. We're all on drugs anyway, the world's a giant pharmacy."
The new Star Wars trilogy "I had profound experiences with Star Wars as a kid, but maybe the Star Wars name has become more of a corporate brand now, not a great new thing so much as part of a safe pie-chart demographic."
Tony Blair "He's quite a beautiful human being but he's part of a structure that's inherently fucked - vested political power - part of a system that's quite ill. The world needs to become a giant commune."
Amorphous Androgynous - The Isness (Universal)
FSOL under a different name set the controls for the heart of the sun. Careful with that axe!
Did you think the albums by Air and Radiohead were a bit prog-rockist? This makes them sound like Chas & Dave. Granted, things start simply enough on this long, long-awaited album from Future Sound Of London in disguise. The percussive, dramatic "Elysian Feels" is a cracker, although... isn't that punning title a tad suspicious, and those flutes a little ripe?
But nothing can prepare you for second track, "The Mello Hippo Disco Show". Here, "Strawberry Fields" Mellotron and Pink Floyd guitar scrunches announce Garry Cobain's voice, a little like Syd Barrett or early Bowie, intoning "She's hiding from the yo-yo/It's a real no-no/Life with Jo-jo".
It seldom gets any less silly from that point onwards, as massed ranks of musicians recreate the sound of the Seventies, while Cobain asks important questions like "Excuse me Mr Spaceman, can't you really spare the time/To float in inner space?" (it is, apparently, "A most extraordinary place".)
Just in case you were in any doubt, let's be clear. This is NOT the harsh electro of Dead Cities, not the digital sheened chill of Lifeforms, nor, least of all, the rough hardcore alchemy of "Papua New Guinea".
The Isness can be summed up by its central track, "The Galaxial Pharmaceutical", an epic that manages to be flatulent, moving, hilarious and monolithically impressive in its 15-minute span. For this, my friends, is the show that never ends: progressive rock - the most reviled, most financially successful genre of all time. Is that a bad thing? Empirically, yes - but if the alternative is an album's worth of some spunk-bubble with brass neck to call his third rate electronic farting 'progressive trance' or 'dirty house', we should embrace it with the desperation of thirty-something spinsters.
And so, through rune manipulation - and maybe just a little bit of cider - we open our third eye and see a vision of the future. Garry Cobain and the other one are atop Mount Vesuvius, capes and hair billowing in the wind. A droplet of sweat falls, as if in slow-mo, from Garry's beard as he grasps the microphone stand, which is made of gold. Behind him, the other one's hands blur through a glissando down the length of one of the 25 keyboards that surround him like a coral. All the while, sitarists, multiple drummers, a children's choir, a 64-piece orchestra, 'luminescence design co-ordinators', vibe watchers, tiger wranglers and dancing dwarves are a frenzy of activity. And the sound...the sound is like a beam of white light from heaven concentrated into a speck the size of the head of a pin, on which a million billion pixie space-elves dance.
It's a vision that is at once ludicrous and heroic. Just like this album.
6/5 (this mark goes all the way out to six - it's one better)