Electronic composer and synth pioneer Mills-Cockell on his genre-defying work with Syrinx and Intersystems—early forays beyond pop and psychedelia.
Over the span of five years and as many records, Canadian composer John Mills-Cockell was involved in two of the most idiosyncratic, unclassifiable, and consciousness-shattering groups to rise out of electronic music obscurity. First as part of the multimedia installation and performance art group Intersystems (1968–69), who were among the first to use a Moog synthesizer in a live setting, and then with the otherworldly synthesizer/saxophone/percussion trio Syrinx (1971–72). There's been a retrospective of Mills-Cockell's work recently, which started with the boxset release of three Intersystems albums (Alga Marghen, 2015) and now continues with Tumblers From the Vault (RVNG Intl, 2016)—a collection of Syrinx's two albums, along with unreleased material.
Robert Beatty I wanted to start with an eye-opening little story about how Syrinx is maybe better known than I'd thought. I was at a wedding reception, seated with strangers, and one turned out to be a music professor at the University of Kentucky, where I live. He asked what I do, so I told him about playing experimental electronic music. The very first thing he said was, "Oh, like Syrinx?" It blew my mind, because I assumed Syrinx was very obscure. But he used to go to shows in Toronto as a teenager and had seen you all perform many times. His first frame of reference for experimental electronic music was not Stockhausen or Cage, it was you guys.
John Mills-Cockell There's an odd irony here because I seem to have this ongoing thing, not an argument exactly, but just a thing with the academic community for electronic music in Canada. We don't quite meet somehow. At one point they did a conference, and I suggested that one of my pieces could exemplify what they were talking about. The guy said, "Well, we'll get to you when we're doing commercial music."
RB (laughter) It's not really inaccessible music, though, nor is it your average thing on the radio. It doesn't even fit in with the progressive music of its day, which was much more based on rock. What your group did was almost like a chamber ensemble, but it seemed, at least in Canada, to have some notoriety.
JMC The records were just never released outside of Canada, so if anyone else heard them it was—just guessing here—through CBC International, or record stores that specialized in imports.
RB When I was touring in Canada I was psyched to find all of them in used record stores.
JMC The second album sold really well, actually. But what's really great now is this new collection, which sounds way better than the original records.
RB As I read the liner notes, I was surprised to learn that the first album started out as basically your solo project.
JMC I never know quite how to play this, you know? Doug Pringle, the saxophone player, and Alan Wells were both longtime friends of mine—in Doug's case all the way back to high school. I was having concerts where compositions that I'd written were performed and they would be there. Alan was a good friend of Blake Parker of Intersystems, so we connected in that way. But when I was in Vancouver, I was playing with this band Hydro Electric Streetcar, like the loudest band in town.
RB More of a rock band.
JMC Right. And I'd been with another rock band in Toronto, too—Kensington Market.
RB Yeah, I love those records. That song "Help Me" has a Moog bassline that really stands out. Long after I heard that record, I found out it was you playing the synth part.
JMC It was me, right. …Also, what was really important was meeting Felix Pappalardi, who produced Cream and Mountain. He took me under his wing when we were recording for Kensington Market. We really hit it off, and he suggested we do something more. He arranged some studio time for me—arranged the financing and so forth. It was a funky little studio. As I began those early tracks I didn't really think about where it was going. I just enjoyed doing the music, and Felix insisted I record it. I had met Alan Wells while playing up the coast in northern British Columbia, and he shows up at the studio, saying, "Okay, I brought my drums!" (laughter) The first piece we did was probably "Chant for Your Dragon King," with him on three or four of the tracks, which was really important in terms of shaping things. We did a combination of sequenced rhythms from the synthesizer and him either playing on top or around them.
Later, with a multi-track tape recorder under my arm, I decided to return to Toronto, and on my very first day back this guy says, "Hey, wanna play at my restaurant?" Bob Levant was his name, but I'd never met him before. Bart Schoales, who latter did the album cover designs for the Syrinx sleeves, introduced us. It was really lucky because I had come across the country by train and all my gear was still packed onboard. I had absolutely nowhere to put it. So we moved it into this tiny, not even 50-seat restaurant, and I set up in the front window. It was all university professors and students—a really a happening place. Just amazing. I had no idea what to play, but then Doug Pringle appears. Somehow he'd heard I was going to be there, which was more than I knew earlier that day. (laughter) He asked, "Do you mind if I sit in?" I was really uncertain about what would happen, but by the end of the night he wanted to do it again. I remember saying, "If you have to." (laughter) By the end of the week, we were starting to make a set, but it was mostly improvised.
RB I was wondering about that because the records themselves sound so organic, like a band playing live. Knowing that things were assembled on different coasts and at different times is a big surprise. Were you working on Syrinx songs when you were in Intersystems?
JMC The first song I wrote for Syrinx was Melina's Torch, when I was commissioned to do a score at the National Arts Center in Ottawa—my first experience in theatre. The play was called Party Day, and Melina's Torch was dedicated to a character, Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress. During that time I was living with a woman, travelling together, and we ended up staying on a farm outside of Ottawa—like in a tent, in a field, where these cows were grazing. It was really funky, but that's where Field Hymn was written, played on a recorder. That was what Felix first heard. In fact, I was in New York just after this run and he said, "So what have you been doing?" and I played it on his piano. He said, "Wow, you've got to record that!" I went off to Vancouver and hooked up with Alan, and when I wasn't gigging otehrwise, I would record at this little place called Baroka Sound.
RB So that was a couple years after Intersystems had ended?
JMC Intersystems folded in early '69. I joined Kensington Market, and by 1970 I was forming Syrinx, so it's all really jammed in there together tight.
RB But there wasn't much overlap between the groups, you were doing one thing and then the next?
JMC It was all discreet and sequential. I left my studies at University of Toronto and joined Intersystems, while taking composition and piano lessons at the conservatory. That would've been 1967. Intersystems formed in '68. It was an incredible undertaking—with the three-record set that Alga Marghen put out, we had to figure out when things happened. There were archives to draw on and a lot of reviews. Intersystems was popular for an underground freak band.
RB Yeah, seeing the newspaper clippings and the number of installations and performances is kind of mind blowing.
JMC It's mindblowing to me, too! Emanuele Carcano at Alga Marghen, who is a genius at doing archival packages, said our chronology makes no sense. He couldn't figure out how everything happened—the dates just couldn't be right. Sometimes we were doing two or three projects at once—but, yup, that's what we really did.
RB Just the scope of things—you even worked with Buckminster Fuller. There's all this stuff I wasn't aware of until that Intersystems boxset came out. But those records seemed almost anti-social to me at first. Finding out they were part of this larger happening really changed everything.
JMC Well, '68 was an incredible year—an amazing year. We were with the Yippies when we did our gig in a Washington, DC. We were all in the same circle—Buckminster Fuller, Abbie Hoffman, etc… The whole thing just rippled out, so by the time we got to Carbondale, Illinois, there were riots going on, anti-war protests. There was this noise at the back of the concert hall there—demonstrators from outside were rushing in. The dean of the university said, "Okay, turn off the lights, turn off the sound. You're finished!" Somehow it was all our fault. We begged, "Please, let us continue, give us the electricity back." And he did, so we start playing this really big bass note, a repetitive kind of mantra, and Blake was talking really quietly through his microphone. Everybody sat on the floor enchanted. That was the spirit of the times!
RB Wow! Were the recordings trying to document these performances?
JMC It was actually much more concerted than that. Even the Number One album was intentional. There was compositional intent, Blake's text was scripted, and his delivery is amazing.
RB I've never heard anything quite like it—like, the simplest things take on so much of an impact.
JMC That's right, exactly!
RB The most mundane, banal things. His delivery turns them into something very pointed and almost sinister.
JMC But it was in the same spirit as Warhol, right? Warhol tried to make the mundane the ruling aesthetic. The other thing, of course, was William Burroughs.
RB I can see that for sure.
JMC When Blake and I were recording, we would say, "Okay, we need this much talking, and the sound will take over here." There was a schematic. By the time we got to the third Intersystems record, Free Psychedelic Poster Inside, there are eleven pieces that are specific to each of the rooms in the Mind Excursion Centre [an installation work staged in July of 1968].
RB That was in Montreal, correct?
JMC Right. And that was really the last thing we did. I was interested in doing music for dance, and Michael Hayden was getting other commissions. We went our separate ways. But with Syrinx, I've got an interesting problem now because we're actually trying to put a trio together again.
RB Oh, wow. And Alan passed away a few years ago, correct?
JMC Alan we don't have now, which is really sad because he was like a protector spirit. He had the building blocks of the band. He fused everything we did. But I'm talking to Doug again and we're working on this crazy thing—kind of an adaptation of Stringspace [the 1971 orchestral suite performed with the Toronto Repertory Ensemble].
RB I've seen a video of that entire live performance! I'd seen a clip before, but it was pretty amazing seeing the whole piece together.
JMC We didn't know it existed. It only cropped up a couple years ago, as a clip on YouTube, which I think Doug Pringle probably posted. Then this filmmaker Robert Fantinatto, the guy that did I Dream of Wires—
RB The modular synth documentary?
JMC Yeah, he had a copy. It's kind of changed everything. We have a studio recording of Stringspace on Syrinx's first LP and then the live CBC recording on the third. It's interesting to compare the performances, as they're quite different.
RB It was cool to see how these were very distinct compositions and everything was very deliberate.
JMC There's a lot of improvisation, but it's done in such a way that the orchestra can stay in sync. Now I'm going to deal with a larger, 35-piece orchestra, and we're adding a few other instruments—like tabla, sarod, Hindustani instruments, and Balinese suling. I want to take the idea of the "long lost relatives" further, just to make it more globally embracing. Literally an hour ago, I got an email from the orchestra leader saying, "Okay, let's do this." All we have to figure out is who's gonna pay for it.
RB It's been a big year. How has it been reevaluating all of this stuff that happened so long ago? You've obviously continued to make music this entire time.
JMC I had a project after Syrinx called the Heartbeat Band, and we have another three-record set from that era coming out soon. That's the last decade of the JMC retrospective. It's great, but I have mixed feelings because it's upstaging what I'm doing now!
RB Well, the Intersystems and Syrinx records sound as if they could've been made today. They sound almost timeless because they're so unique. How aware were you of other groups that were combining rock with synthesizers? Like the United States of America or Silver Apples?
JMC Well, Silver Apples I knew, and the Buchla Synthesizer, of course. Also Tonto's Expanding Head Band. What I didn't know was that Suzanne Ciani had started at exactly the same time as I had, or within a year anyway. And we got our Moog from Robert Moog the same day that Wendy Carlos did.
RB Wow, that's crazy! You had the first Moog in Canada, correct?
JMC Right. As far as I know we actually did the first live performance on a Moog, period. We bought the thing in February and did a gig on March 6th at the art gallery of Ontario, then another on March the 8th. Wendy Carlos was doing studio recording, so hers was a different career trajectory.
RB At the time, a lot of records that featured synthesizers were kind of novelty records, where the instrument itself was featured as the thing that made the record different. With what you all were doing, the electronics weren't the focus. It was the music itself and the group. You were seamlessly integrating the synthesizers and electronics into compositions, which is just—
JMC It was never that intentional. We just wanted to do our music, right? Blake and I were strongly driven by our egos, but that's what's gave it some longevity. It survived novelty.
Robert Beatty is an artist and musician based in Lexington, Kentucky and known for his distinctive album cover designs for Tame Impala, Oneohtrix Point Never, C. Spencer Yeh, Peaking Lights, among many others. His first monograph, Floodgate Companion, is out October 2016 from Floating World Comics.