From ambient trance as FSOL to working with prog legend Peter Hammill, we catch up with the experimental collective.
Self-proclaimed collagists with a passion for prog and spirituality, The Amorphous Androgynous have ventured into the world of progressive rock on current album We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal. Musician and vocalist Garry Cobain tells Prog how the former Future Sound Of London duo came to conjure up something new and exciting with Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill.
Some people are never bloody happy. As the end of the 90s loomed, Garry Cobain and his musical partner Brian Dougans, better known as progressive techno unit The Future Sound Of London, were commercially successful and critically acclaimed, but growing restless. FSOL were one of the most highly regarded of all that decade’s numerous groundbreaking electronic acts, with a reputation for pushing their chosen genre briskly into a bright and tech-savvy future via albums such as the ambient odyssey Lifeforms (1994) and the clattering beats and break-fest of Dead Cities (1996). For Cobain, however, the joy of being a pioneer had lost its edge and it was time to explore a more organic and, most importantly, psychedelic approach, under the name The Amorphous Androgynous.
“I didn’t just want to just be some kind of technological trailblazer,” Cobain tells Prog. “I hated that, and I railed against that in the late 90s. Essentially, that’s why The Amorphous Androgynous started. I got bored of the FSOL sound. I really did. We were being asked to talk about the future all the time, and being asked to be on Tomorrow’s World. That wasn’t really where my heart was at, at that point. I was getting into ancient wisdom and trying to heal my body, because I’d been quite ill. I began to look at Ayurvedic medicine and spirituality and prog rock and psychedelics, going back to the year of my birth, ’67.”
Cobain describes himself as “first and foremost, a collagist”, referencing the cut’n’paste, patchwork techniques that he’s used to create his music, right back to the very early days of FSOL and their experiments with an early, primitive sampler. But after years of pressing buttons, he recalls having a strong sense that his future lay in prog rock and psychedelia: styles of music that he had always loved, but that had never previously seemed like a realistic option.
“The first thing that really made sense was that I wasn’t serious enough as a musician to do prog, although I loved Floyd and Jefferson Airplane and stuff like that,” he notes. “But what could I do as a sample-freak collagist in 1997? Well, I could be a bit of a shitty singer and I was really into becoming a yogi, so I wanted to sing lyrics about mystic consciousness and being on a toadstool and all of that! I was into India, because I was travelling there regularly. And I was looking at George Martin, thinking that if he could string together reel-to-reels, surely with our sampling skills we could do anything?”
Thus The Amorphous Androgynous was born. Cobain and Dougan’s change of focus eventually led to the new entity’s debut album, The Isness. Released under the FSOL banner in the US, due to a contractual obligation, the album purposefully built a bridge from the experimental electronica of their former incarnation to the fervently psychedelic and liberated sonic world that Cobain had previously seen in his mind’s eye. By combining collages of inspired and obscure samples with live instrumentation, including guest performances from a huge cast that included former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas, legendary bassist Herbie Flowers and 60s folk icon Donovan, The Amorphous Androgynous had somehow conjured something genuinely new and exciting. Further studio albums followed (2005’s Alice In Ultraland is particularly brilliant), but the duo remained firmly under the radar until they picked up a Mojo Award for their 2008 conceptual mixtape splurge A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding In Your Mind. A staggering journey through 40 years of psychedelia, acid folk, electronica and countless other weird and wayward musical curios, it summed up the Amorphous ethos perfectly.
“With A Monstrous Bubble…, every track that I found for that, pre-internet, had a personal story attached to it,” Cobain recalls. “Either I was at a market and a tune would waft across, or someone would play me something, or I’d be in India and hear something and have to track it down, or I’d be in Tokyo doing pure crate digging in record shops. I wanted to discover.”
One thing that Cobain has increasingly had reaffirmed since embarking on his Amorphous Androgynous quest, is that his love for prog and psychedelic music stretches right back to childhood, when his father would sit the whole family down to listen to an album, often by The Beatles, from start to finish. One can hear that intuitive grasp of an album’s flow clearly in We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal: the latest Amorphous Androgynous release, a collaboration with Peter Hammill, that sneaked out at the end of 2020 with very little fanfare. A labour of love that Cobain worked on for the last decade and was contemplating far earlier than that, it’s the most overtly progfriendly thing that he’s ever produced and a brilliant example of what happens when an artist pursues their vision, irrespective of the logistics involved.
“Floyd were massive for me at the end of the 90s,” says Cobain. “Somehow the anger of Roger Waters was really making sense. I guess there was this fear of something looming, politically. I was getting into being
30 as well. So there was an element of looking back at childhood and seeing that my youth had gone. So around 2002 I got this idea of producing something in that kind of vein. The relevance of that is that I didn’t know how to do it!”
“It’s working out quite well for us. It all ties in with our history, really. Back in 1993 we were releasing 40-minute singles as Future Sound Of London.”
As luck would have it, Cobain would eventually get an opportunity to give the big, bold ideas behind We Persuade…
a test run. In a not-very-prog turn of events, he was asked to work with Noel Gallagher, producing new material for the ex-Oasis man’s first solo record,
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Now armed with a big studio and an even bigger budget, he seized his moment.
“One of Noel’s tracks was called
Everybody’s On The Run, and I listened to it and didn’t quite get it, but I was trying to stretch his music. You can start with quite a crass idea and it can build and build, so you allow the simple, generic stuff. So I went to town on that track with the Floydisms, and I began to indulge that 2002 idea of always wanting to do one of those kinds of tracks, like some big, cosmic rock’n’roll odyssey! It didn’t work out and eventually that whole thing with Noel dissolved, but by that point I had the vision and the knowledge of how to do it.”
As with previous Amorphous Androgynous records, We Persuade…
boasts a dazzling list of star contributors, including guitarist Ray Fenwick (Spencer Davis Group/Steve Howe’s Remedy), saxophonist Brian Hopper (Caravan/Soft Machine) and British rock legend Paul Weller, whose wonderful piano playing can be heard prominently during the opening, 12minute title track. For Cobain, Weller’s contribution was the catalyst that booted open the creative floodgates.
“I’d done some work with Paul and I was over at his place to discuss something. I play Satie all the time and I had it jammed in my car stereo. We went to the curry house and Paul was uncannily quiet in the car, there and back. We got back and he was like, ‘Pull up that track…’ and what he meant was my early version of Persuade…. He said he thought he could play piano on it, and it was fucking brilliant. He had a beautiful Steinway there. Paul’s one of my favourite musicians, he’s so adaptable. But we went straight from listening to Erik Satie in the car to him laying down that fantastic piano. At that point, the whole song opened up, from my samples to this amazing, lavish piano performance. It made such a real difference.”
The final piece of the We Persuade… puzzle arrived in the form of Peter Hammill himself. The Amorphous crew and Hammill first met when the Van der Graaf legend was charged with presenting them with their Mojo Award back in 2010, but Cobain admits that he was nowhere near as well-prepared as he might have been.
“The night that he gave us that award, I felt a bit embarrassed because I didn’t really know his music!” he chuckles. “But he was such a great and lovely guy. I was really touched by his spirit. It was only after then that his music began to come in. Years later, Gary Lucas gave me the album that they’d made together [Other World], with a view to remixing it. I heard Peter’s voice and thought, ‘Shit! That guy’s tone is perfect for We Persuade…!’ I didn’t need to be an expert on his music. I just knew I had my man!”
Over the course of his 50-year career, Peter Hammill has only ever been involved in a handful of collaborations with other artists. But something about Cobain and Dougans’ work clearly resonated with him, and his performance must rank as one of his most powerful in recent times, as he is assimilated seamlessly into The Amorphous Androgynous world.
“It’s funny, because I knew the track needed saxophone, so Joel [Magill] from Syd Arthur recommended Brian [Hopper]. Now, looking back, this whole thing is based around piano and saxophone, so I was basically laying a template for Van der Graaf Generator and I didn’t realise! So somehow, even without knowing Van der Graaf, I’d basically handed Peter something that was pretty spot on for him.”
According to Cobain, We Persuade… is the first in a planned series of long-form singles, to be followed by a full-length Amorphous album called Listening Beyond The Head Shakra, at some yetto-be-defined point further down the temporal vortex. Audibly thrilled at how his collaboration with Hammill and others has turned out, Cobain is clearly still exhilarated by the strange and unprecedented music that The Amorphous Androgynous have been making, far from the mainstream radar, for the last 20 years. He is also eager to state how pleased he is to be fully immersed in the prog world. Prog and electronic music have always had a strong relationship, and Cobain is the sampladelic wizard at the heart of the Venn diagram.
“It’s working out quite well for us. It all ties in with our history, really. Back in 1993 we were releasing 40-minute singles as The Future Sound Of London. So this is the perfect way for us to be artistically satisfied in the present day, and to be enigmatic and play things on our terms and on our own label. I think I’m doing my job, because I think I’m making something entirely new and it takes people into a new area that’s evocative of loads of things. Ultimately, that makes me very happy.”
We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal is out now and the limited edition of The World Is Full Of Plankton is available via Bandcamp. See www.fsoldigital.com.
“I heard Peter Hammill’s voice and thought, ‘Shit! That guy’s tone is perfect for We Persuade…!’ I just knew I had my man!”