Interview with Phil Stiles

Interview with Phil Stiles
Interview by Lee Carter

Hey and thank you for your time. 

‘The Anchorite’ sees you step out as a solo artist for the first time – what inspired you to do a solo release?

It was a number of things really. Final Coil is and has always been, my primary project, but time moves very slowly because it’s a band that comprises four individuals who have their own lives and I always want to be making music so, over the years, I’ve amassed a large number of tracks of which I’m proud, but which just don’t fit with the band. So, I guess it was only a matter of time before I decided to do something like this. The music, in many ways, exists in the same realm as Final Coil – I see it as an appendix to the band in the same way that Tribes of Neurot is related to Neurosis.

The real catalyst, though, was when I was invited by The Way Of Purity to write an outro for them. I sent a number of pieces in and when they’d chosen one, I fully expected it to need remixing. However, when it got to the studio, they opted to take my original mix and simply master it – it really gave me a confidence boost in developing this material in my own way, and I think it was only a month or so after doing The Way Of Purity track that I had everything finished and ready to master.

With your main outlet in Final Coil, you play a form of alternative/progressive rock. What prompted you to do something more electronic?

I think it’s nice to be able to experiment with different sounds and instruments. In Final Coil, I’ve used a lot of electronic elements as colouring and once you start down that path, you inevitably want to try new things. ‘The Anchorite’ almost reverses the approach in Final Coil because, although there’s a lot of organic instrumentation, it’s lower in the mix and there’s more space for the synths and samples to shine through.

There’s a lot of fantastic electronic music that, I think, carries cross-genre appeal. Acts like The Orb, Leftfield, Orbital, Massive Attack and Aphex Twin tethered their sound to the album format and produced music that was genuinely ground-breaking. In some ways, the best electronic music ran with what the prog bands of the seventies were doing, and it should come as no surprise that a number of prog artists (for example Steve Hillage) happily dabble in ambient as an extension of their art. Then, of course, there are the bands like Nine Inch Nails, V.A.S.T. Senser and Gary Numan, who blended rock/metal and electronic music so effectively. I still remember a friend of mine introducing me to Nine Inch Nails for the first time via ‘The Downward Spiral’ and I listened to that album for weeks after. At that time, I didn’t know that electronic music could be so brutal, and it was incredibly inspiring and, at the same time, intimidating because it just wasn’t easy to access equipment in the way that you can now.

How did the writing process differ from that which you use in Final Coil? Was there any external input at all, or just yourself and your equipment?

At the outset it was very much just me, locked away in my little musical dungeon, giggling to myself as I layered all the synths, guitars and textures. I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I started, because it was all very new to me and I was trying different vocal styles and different approaches to arrangements; so I had it in mind to present it only when it was finished. I think the fact that, at least at the start, I had no intention of playing it live also allowed me to record in a very different way because I wasn’t considering the music from the perspective of what each band member could actually produce on stage. However, when I sent the music to James for mastering, he very kindly listened through and gave me some notes where he felt things could be improved. It wasn’t an extensive list, but I would say that his guidance was invaluable and I really appreciate his taking the time to do that.

On the topic of equipment, what hardware/software did you use, and how did it differ (if at all) from what you have used before?

A lot of the gear is the same stuff that quietly found its way onto the last Final Coil album. I’m pretty careful with what equipment I buy because, quite simply, it’s expensive – so I don’t collect lots of gear or anything like that. I prefer to research equipment that’s easy to use and offers a range of sounds from which to choose. So, in terms of hardware synths, I’m using the Roland Aira Range – the TB-3, System 1 and TR-8; and I generally sketch out electronic stuff through that. The System 1 in particular, which has the ability to take on the properties of other synths, is incredibly useful; but the TR-8 is also fantastic because it captures sounds from the 606, 707, 808 and 909 and allows you to modify each drum independently. It makes editing on the fly really easy but, on the downside, the changes you make are destructive, so you have to capture everything you want in the moment.

In terms of software, I use Ableton Live 10 Suite, which is insanely powerful and, alongside that, I’ve got Arturia Analogue Lab and Native Instruments Komplete 12, both of which are excellent. All the orchestral sounds on the record come from Native Instruments, as do a lot of the incidental sounds. The world of plugin libraries is very easy to get lost in, but every once in awhile I’ll be playing around with the collection, and I tend to make a note of any sounds that really grab me for future use. It’s still the case, however, that I like to use real instruments where I can, so the bass and guitar is largely played live and then edited and mixed in Ableton. I also use a lot of wordless backing vocals to add textures (as on “A Slide Into Depravity”).

As an artist, do you find that you can compartmentalise your headspace for certain genres you are writing in, or does it draw from the same place each time?

I don’t know I ever consciously set out to write a song in a particular style or genre. Generally, I find my mood and/or inspiration dictates the track and I just run with it. I think that, if I deliberately set out to write a song in a certain style, I’d probably end up coming up with something completely the opposite anyway!

More to the point, I think if you try to force the creative process, you’re liable to either hit a creative wall or just end up writing something that sounds hopelessly generic. I love writing, I love experimenting and I tend to record whenever inspiration hits. So, it’s more a case of recording a piece and then working out whether it belongs in the folder marked “Final Coil”, “Solo” or “Never-to-be-heard-by-mortal-ear”. I’m sorry to say the third category is the biggest, but I have plenty of songs stacked up for future use.

Do you think more artists should branch out in creating new music in genres they otherwise would not? 

Um, well, I don’t know about ‘should’… I think experimentation with other genres and sounds is great for those who are into it and, I guess, my favourite artists do tend to explore a wide range of sonic possibilities… But there are times when I really admire those artists who are deeply embedded within their own genre and just have an insane passion for that so, I guess there’s no one way to develop as an artist – you have to do what satisfies your creative impulse.

For me, experimentation is just really exciting, and I do love it when you find something by an artist known for one thing, and it’s completely different. Mike Patton is always great for that, Ulver have changed hugely since their inception, as have Swans – so, yeah, if an artist or band is comfortable with change and evolution, that’s great; but it’s all down to the individual and I don’t think that artists should force themselves to radically change just for the sake of it.

Moving onto your sound: how would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

Gloomy?! Ha, I guess it sits on the boundaries between post-rock, trip-hop and electronica. How about Nine Inch Nails and Mogwai covering Massive Attack and The Cure in some grimy, lo-fi studio – does that work?

Who would you say your musical/non-musical influences are? What artists/genres do you listen to personally?

How long do you have? Musically, I am inspired so much, it’s hard to even think about, let alone to note it all down. I’ve never had that mindset that I only listen to one thing, so if you were to look at my collection you’ll find everything from Blut Aus Nord to Blur via The Chemical Brothers and Khanate. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at one particular style and thought “oh, I want to sound like that” – rather, I tend to pick out things I like (more often than not subconsciously) and that then gets incorporated in what I’m doing. That said, you can hear (especially in Final Coil), that my early influences were predominantly in the alternative rock field – especially in the juxtaposition of heavy guitars and layered vocal harmonies. However, I think that, because I’m so interested in music as a whole, my way of writing is in a perpetual state of flux and it’s certainly the case that each Final Coil album is very different from the last, although I’d hope there’s some continuity. Similarly, with my solo material, I’m already far down the line of writing the next work and, although it still uses a lot of electronic elements, it’s different again.

Non-musically, the twin influences are literature and politics. The former is just the most amazing gateway to a world beyond our own. Literature, for me, is like music – it stimulates the imagination and opens up whole realms of the mind that were previously inaccessible. I’ve always loved to read, and when I find a good novel I’ll often find I’m genuinely sad to leave the world it conjures behind – generally, only music and books have that effect on me, and I can’t imagine life without books. As for politics, well I love the theory, but the practice, unfortunately, governs our lives and it is hard not to be influenced by something so all-pervasive. It surprises me when people say you should keep politics out of music. I mean, I understand if a band is all about escapism, but if you deal with life, then you have to deal with politics and now, more than ever, I think it’s important to be switched on to what’s happening all around because the current crop of leaders (especially in the US and the UK) are not only hopelessly inept, they are genuinely bad people actively working to subjugate the poor to enhance their own wealth. I try not to be too didactic – I prefer to question rather than to preach, but the lack of compassion being shown in society genuinely frightens me.

When writing the EP, were you listening to any particular artist(s) for inspiration? Where do you draw your creativity from?

I am always listening to music and I am always taking inspiration from it. I love the idea that you can be in a rock band and draw from dub, or do something electronic and draw from punk – it’s the best way to develop a sound that’s more your own than, say if you’re in a thrash band and only listen to thrash. So, I take from everywhere and nowhere, and there’s no one artist that I listen to for inspiration per se. However, when I had the actual pieces written, I did look to a number of records for inspiration in terms of how to develop the sound in terms of mixing – most notably Necro Death Mort, Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails (circa ‘Year Zero) and Depeche Mode. I wasn’t seeking to copy them, but it made sense to approach the mixing in that style. “A Slide Into Depravity”, for example, was originally mixed a lot hotter – more like I’d mix Final Coil – and it just didn’t work. But, once I approached it in a more Massive Attack style, where the guitars sat below the bass and seeped out at the end, it worked a lot better.

Did you feel like the music came together easily, or was there a few bumps in the road?

The actual music, in its basic form, was pretty easy because I was writing it with no expectations, so it really was just sketched out and then added to overtime. What was hard was when I finally committed to making it into something that I could release. I ended up re-recording significant portions because what was acceptable for a general sketch was most certainly not acceptable for a final composition. However, I tried not to second-guess myself too much and the final EP is very much the same, in a structural sense, as the original demo.

How has the initial response to ‘The Anchorite’ been?

Do you know, putting this EP out was terrifying? With a band, you can always convince yourself that there are all sorts of elements outside of your control which have resulted in the album getting a poor review (although, I have to say, we’ve largely been lucky in Final Coil); but when it’s a solo effort, you have nowhere to hide. Everything rests on your shoulders and there’s also the fear that, if it isn’t as good as you’d hoped, that it will reflect badly on the band as well. So, I had these twin concerns rattling through my head and, on the day I sent out the files, I was really nervy. So far, it’s been really well-received, for which I’m incredibly grateful. It’s very much a little passion project and it came together very naturally. I think I am my own harshest critic, so I do try to make sure nothing goes out of which I wouldn’t be proud years down the line and, of course, you do have to accept that there will be those who don’t like it. But, there’s a difference between someone subjectively not liking something and something being objectively bad (in terms of musicianship or recording) so, if the reviews have elements of the former, that’s fine… But I’d be devastated if there was a suggestion of the latter because I do put my heart and soul into the music I make.

With regards to the EP itself, ‘The Anchorite’ was set to the backdrop of the UK’s decision to leave the EU – how did you find this affected your work on the project?

On a broader scale, and with, Brexit in-mind, how do you see this affecting you as a solo artist and as part of a band in future?

I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken these two questions together. Although there are those, predominantly with their heads in the sand, who say Brexit will change nothing; of course it’s going to change everything. It changed me; it changed how I saw the country in which I lived. It changed the sense of optimism that epitomised the 90s and replaced it with a sense of gloomy isolationism and rampant nationalism, the like of which I could never countenance.

The Westphalian System, to which this whole mess harks back, was designed to maintain the power of the monarchs in the wake of the 30 and 80 years’ wars. It was a desperate solution designed to re-balance power in Europe and, by virtue of colonialism and expansion, it became a world system. It was never intended as such. It’s just that no one came up with anything better in the interim and the structures imposed in the wake of World War I and II (the League of Nations, The United Nations, Wilson’s 14 points, etc.) were very much geared to keeping the system in place because, let’s face it, it benefits those who wield the actual power.

The World Wars, if they had any sort of positive outcome, shocked humanity into much closer cooperation for a period of time (the Cold War notwithstanding) and, for all its faults, the neo-liberalism introduced by Thatcher and Reagan in the late 70s did push Globalisation forward in a number of ways as states (and by extension people) became more dependent upon one another for products. I always felt much more comfortable with the idea of a global world, where interconnectivity was celebrated and encouraged; not in a world where borders are erected around every state and where migrancy is seen as culturally or economically undesirable.

So, how does this affect me as an artist? It affects the world around me. It affects my ability to travel and to settle in different places. It affects people’s perceptions of me because the international perception of England has been irrevocably tainted. It affects my ability to see and interact with international artists in this country. You know, a few years ago, we played gigs with bands from across Europe and some of them even stayed on our floor after the gigs – that’s what open borders look like. I hate the fact that nationality is felt by some to dictate who a person is and I reject that position utterly. I think both the knowns and unknowns of Brexit are going to have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for artists and I see nothing good in it at all.

How do you see it affecting other artists and the music industry in general once the dust settles?

Well, the most obvious aspect is the ability to freely tour. How many bands have cut their teeth touring the European circuit and making connections in all sorts of different countries? Nothing was more irritating than seeing a handful of monied rock stars talking about how they did it back in the 70s and how everything will go back to the way it was.

What a stupid, narrow, facile view.

The Europe (and England) of the 1970s no longer exists. The financial, political, technological and social interactions of Europe and of the world are completely different and the complex web of movement between countries is governed by a number of treaties and stipulations that most people never even see at ground level because they just work seamlessly so that people and products can move across borders without the reams of paperwork that used to be (and which will once again be) commonplace. So, on a practical level, travelling to England is no longer just a case of hopping a boat from the mainland and exploring a whole new country – it’s border checks and queues on both sides of the channel, with a suitable mix of aggression and suspicion from the border guards as an added incentive. On top of that, because let’s face it, musicians are used to financial hardship, there’s the cost of temporary visas and permits necessary to perform (which, presumably, will work both ways, although there’s typically no clarity on this at all at the moment). Bands can’t afford those expenses, so there’s a strong likelihood that, for all but the most well-off of bands, England will become a no-go zone. A petit-minded cultural backwater with only its own bands for company, competing in an incestuous and ever-diminishing circuit thanks to the endless gentrification of areas formerly known for their cultural integrity.

Of course, there’s also the economic fallout in general, coupled with the beautiful bonus of the pandemic and the impact that’s already had on the industry. But at least the latter is a tragic mishap, whereas Brexit is a self-induced, criminal folly, perpetuated by a people who have been utterly manipulated by the mass media into believing that a country with a rapidly-shifting dependency ratio can somehow make it without migration.

With titles such as “A Slide Into Depravity” and “Critical Thinking”, ‘The Anchorite’ feels very much like a lament to the UK’s, and even the globe’s situation – what is your take on the state of things now?

Globally, we live in a very dangerous time. Historically, declines in economic fortunes (such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis) have resulted in countries taking large steps to the right. Those who are heavily invested in the notion of the Social Contract wherein the State provides for its own citizens, are the first to point fingers in the direction of global flows and movements when things start to take a downturn. The problem is that the world is heavily interconnected now. The changes that have occurred – socially, politically, economically and culturally – have been so rapid and far-reaching that humanity is, to some great extent, bound together even whilst there are those who seek to tear it all apart. So, for me, it’s a very short-term and narrow-focused point of view. The success of humanity on a local or international level, I believe, lies in working together to bring those at the lowest level up to a higher standard of living.

“A Slide Into Depravity” is a direct comment on that and, specifically, on the UK’s lurch to the right in the immediate wake of the Brexit Referendum. It laments how little people were prepared to consider evidence over emotion – a common theme in my work. The fact that “Critical Thinking” is an instrumental is very deliberate. The idea I wanted to put forward is that it is sometimes more important to listen than to speak – something lost in the current social-media discourse that has emerged. I studied politics for years and the one thing my studies taught me above all else was not how much I knew, but how little. Maybe it’s because the world we live in now is so new – people are scared by change, and that’s understandable; but I can’t help but feel that if people were more prepared to listen, even to uncomfortable ideas, the better we’d all be.

As with Final Coil, you incorporate socio-political issues into the fold. Are you ever wary of angering “the other side” of your argument, or do you try to strike a balance where possible? Or are you happy to state your views and if anyone disagrees then that is on them?

Well, I don’t see myself as the sole source of objective truth and I am more than happy to have a discussion with those willing to have one. I have always advocated compassion and as I said above, a track like “Critical Thinking” was deliberately left wordless because it is better to listen than to speak – that way, learning can take place.

However, I don’t care at all about angering those who are so convicted of their view that they won’t listen to what others have to say. We are in this mess, both locally and globally, because it has become commonplace to didactically assert your own position through social media (and, inevitably, this has had a knock-on effect on the conversation), whilst ignoring, overriding and even outright condemning anything that opposes your own world view. In discussion, I try to take an evidence-based approach to what I say, and I have no problem in reappraising my position in the light of new evidence, but I fear a lot of people are not interested in such an approach. If I anger those people – good. I want the people who listen to my music to come from all walks of life as long as they are willing to listen as well as to speak. I don’t want anyone so intellectually arrogant that they won’t countenance an opposing viewpoint.

“Anchorite” itself means “a religious recluse”, so what drew you to the title and why?

In many ways, I see the dogmatic position of those on the extreme left and extreme right of the political spectrum as being analogous to the dogma of the church. And, of course, historically, the parallel is deeper still because religion was deliberately manipulated by the early monarchs as a tool to maintain control (indeed, Constantine’s introduction of Christianity can be seen as a means by which to prop up his own ailing power). So, The Anchorite is any person isolating themselves behind a screen, grinding their teeth and asserting the right to absolute truth, free from the taint of any opposing position. When I see how utterly divorced from reality people have become in favour of clinging on to a position that is purely rooted in ideology, I don’t see any difference between them and the brave soul in the artwork clinging on to his sign castigating “Satan’s brainwashed sheep”. It’s an interesting question in this age of enforced isolation, as to how many people have become The Anchorite now.

While not all of us are religious, we have an idea of what it is like to be recluses at the moment – how has the coronavirus situation affected you? How are you doing whilst staying at home?

It’s been very odd, hasn’t it? In all honesty, and I don’t want to come off as sounding glib about a situation with such appalling consequences for so many… But, for me, being isolated has allowed me a certain time to take stock of my life; to read and to create music without worrying about what I’m missing in the wider world. The longer it goes on, the harder it becomes – that’s certainly true – and I desperately miss live music, both as a participator and as an audience member. But I have made good use of this time. However, I am grateful that I have not suffered a loss as so many have.

With the effects of COVID-19, how are the members of Final Coil doing in their own lockdowns?

The band is doing fine and I hope we can get back to rehearsal soon. Rich (the guitarist) and I have been in touch constantly throughout and we’ve traded a lot of files for new music; so, we haven’t been idle. As a band, we also have group meetings every once in a while, both between ourselves and via management – it’s been good to keep up, but I can’t wait to get back into our rehearsal room.

What has been keeping you entertained? Are there any new bands or artists that have caught your attention recently? Any recommendations for the readers?

There was a whole spate of great albums that came out just as this thing kicked off. The new albums from Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride were both fantastic, with Paradise Lost just edging it for me. Then there were releases from Lamb Of God, Suicide Silence, The Medea Project, Kly (Polish black metal band), Koniec Pola (a kind of dark, ambient neo-folk) Trivium and Testament… It’s been one hell of a year for great metal (which makes it all the more galling that live music is in abeyance). Other than that, I spent a lot of time listening to various older albums on vinyl from the likes of Fugazi, Beastie Boys, Beck, Leftfield and Massive Attack… There’s something about the hot weather that always brings me to those sorts of chilled records and it’s always good to listen to a wide range of stuff.

Naturally, live shows have currently been curtailed, but could you see yourself performing the EP live at some point? If so, how do you think you would approach it?

Originally, I had no plans to do this live – it was just a one-off that I wanted to do. Yet, the longer I’ve listened to it and lived with it, the more I want to put something together for it. I remember Trent Reznor doing interviews around the time of ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ and saying that when he put his band together he wanted “a more visceral flex of the muscle” and I can see that being an approach; although the Massive Attack approach circa ‘Mezzanine’ is also appealing. What I will say is, however it ends up on stage, it will be with real musicians playing the parts as far as possible, not with backing tracks. I don’t object to bands using backing as such, but I always feel like something is lost when you’re constrained by playback – I’d love to see this become something more organic on stage.

Beyond the current pandemic, what lies ahead for you? Do you have more music in the pipeline? What can fans expect?

I’m always busy writing and recording. There will be a new Final Coil record somewhere in the future and I am very close to finishing a new solo work as well. Of course, in terms of timing, all bets are off right now, but fans can expect new music soon and a flurry of live activity as soon as it becomes viable once again.

Thank you for your time, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?

I just want to say thank you to anyone who has got this far through my musings and, especially, I want to thank anyone who has taken the time to check out my music. It is something I love to do and if there are people who are willing to take the journey with me, I can only say that I am very grateful for their company.