Andrew M. McKenzie is best known as the experimental / ambient sound artist The Hafler Trio, a project that began in the late 1970s. McKenzie met Brion Gysin and has been involved in many Gysin-related ventures, including the release of the first Dreamachine in kit form. McKenzie spoke to Ciarán Ryan about his life, his art, Gysin, ’80s counterculture, the birth of multimedia, Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), Cabaret Voltaire and much more.
This is the first part of a four part series. Part one is a Gysin-tinged Q&A, mostly about McKenzie’s life and work. Part two covers his Dreamachine project, part three will focus on the Gysin book that McKenzie edited; His Name Was Master, and part four will further explore Gysin’s work and influence.
Pictured: Andrew M. McKenzie
How do you describe yourself now?
Most people would know me from putting out these silly noisy records with impossible packaging, but I also teach beginner Tibetan and I do translations. I do all sorts of things basically so… Jack of all trades, master of none.
When I mention Brion Gysin to you, which of your Gysin projects spring to mind?
There’s the Dreamachine. We were the first people to ever release it as a kit with a record and CD and all that kind of stuff. There’s also the small book which was released with an interview which nobody had heard before, and the first time a lot of people had heard the musicians of Jajouka; that came out a long time ago as well, and not that many people know about that.
The Dreamachine took a long time to get out, but it was approved and was suggested by [Gysin], and there was a Dreamachine / Gysin videotape, which was also released.
And then there’s the interview book to end all interview books [His Name Was Master] which came out a few years ago as well, which I edited.
Pictured: Screengrab of Dreamachines from McKenzie’s Dreamachine DVD.
It can be downloaded here. Lots of Hafler Trio products for sale here, too.
Please tell us more about some of your work.
I’ve done a lot of things. I have this project called The Hafler Trio, which has put out far too many records and done concerts in quite a few different countries.
I started putting records out a long time ago – that’s been quite a big thing. But I’ve also done things like:
I co-ran a food shop – which was before people knew this word “organic”. A wholefood shop, in Darlington County, Durham, UK. People used to think it was the strangest place in the world. I don’t know what Darlington is like today, but it was sort of a Bermuda Triangle of the north or something. You went there basically to die, and you just disappeared. The train used to pass through because that was what it did.
The very first railway in the world was the Stockton to Darlington Railway – which comes up in the Gysin saga at a certain point. Also, Ian Somerville came from Darlington – and that becomes relevant later on.
Anyway, people used to come in [to the shop] and say, “oh, look, that rice is dirty”. Meaning it was brown rice. They’d never seen it [before]. Eventually the shop became reasonably successful, mainly because we sold porridge oats cheaper than anybody else.
Then I moved back to Newcastle and I was a classical guitar teacher. I learned how to play classical guitar quite young, and I was one of those horrible kids you want to strangle because I was a bit precocious, but I was also 6’2” when I was 12 years old, so nobody dared try to.
I looked after children at a battered women’s home. I was the only man allowed in the building and these guys would come with sledgehammers sometimes to try and get in. Somehow they’d find out where these women were with their children and try to get in. Then I had to get rid of them.
I taught what we would now call tweens, at a place called the People’s Theatre in Newcastle, which was run by a wonderful man called Nick Whitfield.
And then I moved to Holland, where I got involved with all sorts of other crazy things. I ended up living in the house where Hitweek and Aloha – the two magazines which had basically forged the idea of a teenager into Dutch society – were created. Willem de Ridder was living there, as well as some other people who had been involved in the magazines.
Willem was the head of the Fluxus Art movement in Europe and was also co-organiser of the Wet Dream Film Festival with William Levy, which Brion Gysin had come to, and a small piece of his was published in the catalogue for that event.
Bill Levy is in the Burroughs biography ‘Literary Outlaw’ by Ted Morgan. In there, Burroughs blamed Bill Levy for having caused Ian Somerville’s death by writing a not very complimentary article in one of these magazines that was published by Willem and several other people. I lived in the house with the people who did all that and we did radio broadcasts, publications, newspapers, all sorts of things.
And I continued making all these other strange records in Holland. Staalplaat, which was a record company, only put cassettes out at that time. They put out a small book of mine with a tape recording of an interview that a guy called Harry Hoogstraten did at Schiphol Airport with Brion Gysin and some incredibly well recorded Joujouka music – which most people had never heard at that point. This was the first Gysin release that I had anything to do with and it was a short essay called ‘Back in no time’. It was a hardback book in this beautiful wooden box with these two cassettes.
Pictured: The Master Musicians Of Joujouka / Brion Gysin box set. Staaltape. 1988
Around about that time I brought out the Dreamachine – for the very first time as a commercial thing. I think it was a rolled up poster with an LP and a book or a CD and a book.
It was the first time  that the sound properties of the Dreamachine had been publicly demonstrated, and there was a big performance of it in Aorta, Amsterdam, on about four different levels, with all these dreamachines going around. People could, for the first time, really see them, because everybody had heard about them, but nobody had ever really seen them.
Plus the sound component which was developed with Genesis P-Orridge and finished off by me and made into these records.
I’ve also done graphic design for many, many different things.
I was co-founder of an organisation called Touch, which is now basically just a record company, but in those days was what we used to laughingly call multimedia. Up ‘til then the culture had been putting out these things as photocopies and cheap things like that. And we said, “well, why don’t we take this alternative stuff and make it into a nice kind of coffee table version?” Like, really high quality printed and all the rest of it. When it started to turn into a record company, I kind of lost interest and left.
I’m leaving lots and lots of things out…
These days I teach beginners’ Tibetan and I also do a little bit of translation from the classical Tibetan language. And I’ve written books. A bit like Mr. Gysin himself, I’ve done far too many different things.
Do you think of yourself as a musician or…?
No, I mean, I used to teach classical guitar also, so I know the music side of things, but I mean these things are not really music, the kind of things that I’ve done. They’re more kind of like, I don’t know, sound experiences or something, but it’s not just the sound anyway. The texts and the images and all the packaging and everything that goes with it is just as important and sometimes more important. We call it ‘multimedia’ today, but it wasn’t called that then, so it’s all sorts of things – ‘expanded media’.
You know these kind of ridiculous terms that have been invented to try over the years to try and get this idea. ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’… which doesn’t really get to it. So I don’t think about it. I don’t think about what I am or what I do. I mean I’m just another idiot trying to make some interesting stuff, basically.
Pictured: Exactly As I Say by The Hafler Trio (based on the voice of Jónsi Birgisson)
What is the reason to put that music out? What were you trying to say or what was the purpose of it?
A lot of them had very different purposes. You see, when I first got interested in all these interesting, weird things, of course they were very hard to get. There was no Internet, it used to take months to get an obscure book through interlibrary loans and all that kind of stuff. So whenever you got something, you devoured it and you scrutinized it to the last centimeter or the last millimeter.
And if it was a record you memorized every single word and every single note and all that kind of stuff.
Transcendental or transformative experiences were possible then because you put so much concentration into it.
I wanted to be able to give people that similar sort of experience.
These days it’s much more difficult because people have access to so much. But when I was putting out [multimedia], the majority of the stuff that I put out, was to try and create an experience. A life changing event, where you’d be a different person after you listened to it or read it or watched it. Which I always thought was the purpose of any kind of art anyway. I was never interested in giving people entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with entertainment – it’s just I wasn’t particularly interested in that.
Video: Audio of Exactly As I Say by The Hafler Trio
What’s so limited about a person, before they’ve engaged with one of your experiences?
Well, it’s a question of perspectives and the more perspectives you have on something, the more complete the picture is. Even though it’s not possible to get completely clear and complete – the point would be that you were temporarily put into a situation. A bit like going on holiday – the important part of going on holiday is not the place you went to, but seeing where you normally live in a different light. That’s the closest analogy I can really give you.
And of course, it’s not for everybody, and it never was supposed to be a mass thing. I never had any illusions about that, but it’s quality and not quantity, right?
I mean, most of the people we’re going to talk about in this conversation have never been particularly successful on a mass scale. And yet they changed lives. You know, in most cases for the better.
So even though it’s a small pathetic attempt, I mean it’s still an attempt to try and improve people’s lives by giving them a different view of life. And they can go back to their original view if they wish. But at least now they know there’s an alternative. That they can see the world, if they want to, in a different way.
If you’re in a prison and you don’t know you’re in prison, you won’t try to escape, will you? That sounds quite arrogant now that I say it, but it’s a genuine desire to give people an experience which will help them.
Why aren’t you a policeman? Your father was a policeman for a period. Why does your route diverge so much from what might have been expected from you?
Well, the thing about my father having been a policeman is he wasn’t a very conventional policeman. If he had not been forced by his father to join the police cadets, then he would have made a very good criminal. And that’s why he was such a good policeman, because he was able to think exactly like they did. So it’s not that far away, actually.
Later on, he ended up being a writer for television and radio and films and all sorts of things.
He was never a conventional policeman. In fact, they tried to get rid of him a lot by shoving him off to the worst possible jobs, to try to get him to quit because he wouldn’t join the Freemasons. A bit like myself, he was never really a join-er. He was never really a person for fitting in with the rest of society, which is a kind of a teenage rebel attitude that you never really grow out of. And I would never have become policemen after all of the horror stories he told me about it.
For someone of your age and social class there are certain paths that were carved out for you…
My father was also an international athlete. He was in the Commonwealth Games and he threw the discus and the hammer and the shot for England and other stuff. There was a big pressure on me to follow the [sporting] path. And I didn’t do that. At that particular time in the North East of England, if you were interested in art or music, that meant you were gay, so therefore you would get beaten up a lot. But I was about 1 1/2 feet taller than everybody else at the age of about 11 or 12, so nobody ever tried. And then I ended up basically not going to school from around about the age of 14 or something.
I used to go to the local library. Because the school wasn’t teaching me anything anyway, except how to lie and to cheat and steal and all the rest of it.
So I used to go to the library and I just read all the random books that they had on one particular shelf. So that’s when I got all this sort of cross-fertilisation between all these supposedly unrelated subjects.
This is in the 1970s when basically you were told that you had no future. Even with qualifications: you might end up with a degree and driving a bus, and that was probably the best you could hope for.
You can put it down to many different factors, but I didn’t want to go along with it. I just didn’t. Part of it is teenage rebellion, and part of it is just sheer bloody-mindedness. And then discovering these other worlds mainly through books, because records and cinema and stuff like that was much harder to get hold of.
Through people like Burroughs and Gysin and also books about yoga, and Nietzsche… and many different things, where it was another world opening up, which is again one of the things that I have always tried to do. To try and create an opening to a world that you wouldn’t normally have access to.
So it’s a combination of a lot of things, there’s no, there’s no way I can sort of pin it down to one particular event or reason or cause or something.
It’s just many, many influences that coalesced into the mess that I am.
Pictured: Andrew McKenzie with Andy Warhol. Instagram.
Where does the Hafler trio fit into this? When did that begin?
Chris Watson moved up to Newcastle. He’d quit Cabaret Voltaire – I’d met him before. In one of my old groups I’d supported Cabaret Voltaire and the Fall in Newcastle and sort of kept up a correspondence. He was working as a sound recordist for Tyne Tees Television, the local television station, and he wandered into the record shop that I was working in and we just started doing stuff.
He was very much not wanting to get involved with those people again – he was into recording natural history sounds and making radio plays and that’s really what we started working on – was making odd radio plays or like the Germans called it: hörspiel – like a play. Not really like a soundtrack – but sort of an adventure for the radio.
It was very disposable as well, it wasn’t meant to be a permanent thing. Not like putting out records. Gradually the pressure came to put out a record because Cabaret Voltaire had their own record label by that time, and one of these radio plays that we did, we sort of re-edited it and put it out as a record.
But we were much more interested in: you hear something on the radio and it’s gone. Not many people recorded things from the radio in those days, so it’s meant to be a fleeting thing. As opposed to all these people trying to make careers and call themselves sound researchers and all this other kind of nonsense.
We weren’t really interested in the music – it was much more of an experience – like a world to go to, or a landscape or an atmosphere that you would actually create, that people could then experience.
All the people that I used to really admire were synthesists. There were not people who just did one thing.
Gysin is a synthesist. He famously said, you know, that writing was 50 years behind painting.
Other people that I used to admire, like Gurdjieff or Buckminster Fuller – these were people who took things from anywhere. If it actually worked, they put them together into a new synthesis. Just about everybody I ever admired was like that. And that’s what we were doing.
One of the things about the whole quote, unquote industrial movement was that you were listening to a record which had references to film, and that film would have references to literature and that literature would have references to some kind of philosophical thing. It was no longer “Oh, you’re a guitarist – well, you play guitar.”
The world was now a very different thing, and you could – even if you were a musician – start making a film.
Or you could start writing your thoughts down, and that would turn into a philosophy and you would end up with the Temple of Psychick Youth.
This is the most interesting thing to me, about all of this stuff, is that it stopped being just about one particular thing. It was many, many different things and you didn’t really know where the influences were going to crossover any more.
It was an open field. And we call it multimedia now, but then, there was no name for it.
Why did you not join Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth?
Well firstly, just because of being bloody minded and you know, not wanting to join a group. I was suspicious of it for many reasons and of course I had a very good mole in there in David Tibet – I knew a great deal of what was going on in there and it just didn’t attract me.
I didn’t see any advantage to cutting my hair in that particular way and wearing those particular clothes and – there was nothing attractive to me in it.
What was the attraction was of Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth? What did it offer to people?
A home. Very much a safe place to be slightly different except wearing the same clothes as everybody else. Gen [Genesis P-Orridge] was very good at being a kind of father figure. And actually a lot of lost sheep joined Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth looking for another father. This is not a theory of mine; I knew a lot of the people who did do this, and that was their reason. They were looking for answers and Gen had all the answers you know, supposedly. And it was sufficiently obscure in parts that people had to get involved with it to find out the inner secrets. But, by which time they had been converted, let’s say.
Any situation like that where you start to close people off from other influences by making it plain that you know better than everybody else, and the reason that it might not seem like that is because you don’t know the whole truth and the reason you don’t know the whole truth is because you haven’t done this or that ritual and you haven’t been involved in this particular thing. So it feeds on itself and it becomes what we would call a cult. And having known Gen very well later on, and Sleazy a little bit, I know why they did it and you know it wasn’t for the best reasons.
They did not invent this for purely altruistic reasons. I just knew that that’s what was going on and I just wasn’t interested. It was interesting to see people’s reactions. That was the most interesting thing. To have people challenged and there was a fair amount of intelligence which was behind it and that intelligence you may well say was misdirected. But there was a hell of a strong intelligence behind it. Whatever criticisms I might have of any of it, one of them is not that they were unintelligent.
Why do you think Genesis set up Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth?
He said, later on, why. It’s not a secret. He and Sleazy invented it primarily to have sex with young people. And they said it, not me.
Another tangent: Do you have memories of Richard Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire?
I didn’t know him that well, or I knew him fairly well, but without being too explicit about it, Richard was no stranger to stimulants, let’s say.
I remember one occasion where there was a festival that was supposed to happen in Hamburg, and people came from all over the world to play there, including Richard. Me also. And it turned out that the organiser had no money. So the whole thing was not going to happen and many people were stranded in Hamburg. So I had the dubious honor of looking after Richard and his girlfriend Lynne for a very long weekend, which seemed much longer than just three or four days.
I pulled in a lot of favours with a lot of different people that I knew in Hamburg to supply him with all sorts of things.
And I remember the next time I saw him was at the supposedly final gig of Throbbing Gristle, at the Astoria in London. (There was going to be one reunion gig, and then there was going to be no more. And then that ended up being loads more). There was a kind of VIP level upstairs where people like Richard and David Tibet, Dani Miller from Mute Records and all sorts. We were all upstairs and I went up to Richard and he didn’t even recognize me, so it was quite bizarre.
I met him, it must have been, 1980 I think it was when I supported Cabaret Voltaire and the Fall in Newcastle, so I’d known him a long time, so I had to reintroduce myself a few times to him [laughter].
He was remarkable because, partly, his stubbornness, but partly he would never, ever not say what was on his mind. He was very forthright in a way which was very refreshing and not easy to live with, but I admire his bloody mindedness. He just didn’t put up with anything that he didn’t want to put up with. And you have to admire that kind of stubbornness. I also have a bit of that myself, you know?
One side of that is stubborn and the other side of that is the more positive word persistent, so you can see it whichever way you like.
Pictured: Cover of the Giving a Baby a Chainsaw – The Hafler Trio: An Art Apart DVD. Documentary, 2015.
Did Gysin and the cut-up technique have an impact on Cabaret Voltaire?
Yes – everybody. I mean all of those people; Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA… I mean everybody.
You can trace that back to David Bowie. There was that film about the Diamond Dogs tour and there was quite a lengthy section where he’s cutting lyrics up and then putting them together into new orders to make his lyrics.
Adi from Clock DVA idolized David Bowie. That’s why he’s called Newton. Adi Newton, right? Because Bowie was Newton in the Man Who Fell To Earth.
And the Adi is short for Adolf because he was such a dictator.
It had an enormous influence on many, many people. But the cut up thing wasn’t limited to just them. John Cage was cutting up physical tape, throwing the bits up in the air and joining them all together long before the cut ups were discovered by Gysin in Paris.
Again, you think you’ve discovered something and then you find out people have been doing it forever. It’s not that you’re copying, you just don’t know that somebody else has independently invented it.