When I got Andrew Cowie on the phone to discuss his Angel Eyes project, my first question was whether he’d ever seen the 1980s television series Highway to Heaven. The show’s opening credits filled me with a weird dread as a kid – something I can’t describe even now. They depict a pilot’s view through white clouds, followed by a long shot of a man approaching the camera on a hazy flat highway. The suggestion, I guess, is that the man flew down to earth. I don’t know – I never actually watched the program.
When I first listened to Angel Eyes’ first cassette, 2009’s Dire Dish, it immediately reminded me of those opening credits. I can’t rationalise the connection, but there’s definitely something searching and monumental and frighteningly beautiful about that cassette. Sonically, Angel Eyes is both airborne and barren: alarmingly spacious and eternal. That album conjures images of worlds, kingdoms and landscapes with totally foreign colour schemes and an abundance of space. The dread I mention isn’t one of imminent danger but instead a kind of Lovecraftian lack of comprehension – of having a tiny hint at something bigger than you, something you will never know. It’s one of my favourite records – four pop songs stretched to their very limit and layered with glistening synthesizer.
Unfortunately for me, Cowie has never seen the opening credits to Highway to Heaven. Later this year, he’s releasing his third album Final Fare – his first on vinyl – through Bedroom Suck, which follows Dire Dish and Vice to Vice, both cassette only albums released on Not Not Fun and Moon Glyph respectively.
The word dreamy is used to describe music a lot, but it seems especially appropriate for Angel Eyes. What draws you to this sound?
It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about where you grew up, but I grew up on a dairy farm in regional Victoria. It’s grassland desert – the kind of place no one wants to see on the road because they just get bored of it, but I dug it. I think for me a lot of the reverb and delay and the endlessness [is inspired by that]. Wherever you turn there’s a horizon.
I also used to really dig just listening to a fan in the summertime, just a regular fan blowing. That sort of constant tremolo and that phasing effect of the fan when it was on the rotation setting, moving back and forth, I liked that. Throughout the year I used to wait for that time when I could put a fan on at night and it was okay with my parents to do so. That definitely had a part and impacted on what I was listening to a lot. I grew up listening to a bit of grindcore as well, but then I discovered Godflesh who were a bit slower and minimal, and OLD who were a bit more cyclical or repetitive. Now I’m always searching for space, and I guess that’s the haziness that comes from dreams. I think that element plays some part.
What kind of circumstances compel you to write or record the material? What’s the right time?
There’s no right time, I just do it every day. Actually that’s a bit extreme – I do it most days. I just want to do it. I don’t know why, it’s kinda an unhealthy habit sometimes. I could be doing a tax return and I’ll just ignore that and continue to play my music. I just like writing, I don’t know why. I have no idea. I should know, everyone should know why they do things they do. I just need to create a new sonic universe for myself, or something like that.
You say the environment you grew up in plays a large part in the music. Does your current environment in Melbourne play a part also?
I think I’ve become a lot more… I think I was just trudging through the city before, but now I’m paying a lot more attention to the way streets are lit up or the way walls look, and noticing dilapidated or decrepit buildings. I realised that when I walk around I rarely looked up, so now I tend to look up a lot more. The suburban and industrial spaces has impacted a bit, because there is always space wherever you go. I live in North Melbourne, which is pretty close to the centre of the city so it’s pretty tall, but if you look up you can always find that space that I crave, and sometimes I forget about that. But I guess when you look at the ground you can find a lot of space as well.
Moments of silence have an impact. Not of total silence but of quiet, like driving at night. I don’t own a car so I don’t drive much, but being in a taxi late at night, there’s a sense of calm about it. I think maybe that impacts. We all search for things and that search for silence or space or whatever your thing is, that impacts on me. It’s a reflection more so than a direction I guess.
The keyboards, particularly on Dire Dish, have an almost spiritual sound to them, like wavering church organs. Is Angel Eyes meant to be a meditative listening experience?
I don’t think it’s meant to be anything to be honest, other than what I’m into at the time. Anything that happens, the result of listening to it is up to the listener. I think that’s just my aesthetic and what I like impacting on what people hear. Maybe it is though, maybe it’s a way for me to meditate, for me to find my place in the city or wherever. A retreat, maybe.
Your lyrics are often inaudible or indecipherable, is that intentional?
Yeah, I’d say yes. I do take care with them, but I don’t feel confident with them really. I think with what I’m producing at the moment I don’t know whether it’s that relevant, I think it might take away from the sonic space that I’m trying to build. I just think it could get in the way. Like I said I do take care with the lyrics but the voice is more of an instrument. I think taking care of it is more of a private thing for me, I just need to feel like I’ve put the effort in.
I often don’t give lyrics a second thought when I can hear them, but because yours are so obscured it makes me curious. Particularly during ‘Do Away With’ on Dire Dish.
I can’t remember what that song was, but generally it’s just a snapshot of something. For example ‘Dire Dish’ is literally about me serving myself dire dishes: at the end of the day after work, I’m staring down at the quick and easy monstrosity that I’ve created, and you can look to the past and look to the future in one really shitty dish.
That’s an interestingly mundane theme for music that sounds so monumental.
[Laughs] Well you can find anything in any moment, and looking at those mundane moments, they’re as pivotal in most people’s lives as anything else, if you actually assess it.
My impression is that Final Fare is a lot cleaner: there’s less guitar for instance. Why has your sound developed in this direction?
The less guitar thing is more a result of playing live, because I felt kind of restricted. When you’ve got a guitar and you’re trying to play keys it’s a difficult thing to grapple with physically. I found that if I played keyboards I could basically disarm the mic stand and just have a floating mic, so I had much more freedom to move about or give some sort of physicality to the way I perform live. As a result I want recordings to reflect what I do live. I’d like to play more guitar but it’s just me solo, and to be honest I’ve never done much keys in the past and I’ve been getting into it. In terms of chords it’s a lot more interesting medium to use than guitar I find. But also there’s the sonic physicality of a guitar that I like. I’m constantly thinking about going back to guitar, but at this point I’m just using keys. I’m finding new things in it.
I don’t mean this disparagingly, but the songs take on a more new age feel without the guitar. Do you recognise that?
Totally. For my work I have to deliver to this Qi place in Melbourne. They have amethyst stones and good luck charms, and they constantly have that music playing in the background. It’s incredibly synthetic and very still. I’m kinda interested in that at the moment, that stillness and synthetic-ness. It’s a very odd mixture, because I always equate technology with noise. But there’s a stillness that can come from it as well. The new age thing, I guess is a bit different, but I guess that harks to what you were saying about the meditative or dreamlike state. I also just like this soft music sometimes, and maybe it’s that playing a role.
Over the last two years new age has become less frowned upon. Elements of it pop up in a lot of modern music.
I actually frown upon it in some ways. When I go into this Qi place and hear the music I think I’d want to kill myself by the end of the day, it’s so saccharine and sweet. But most things are accepted now, it feels like anything can be hip. Is that kinda a hangover of the Vice culture, which has seeped into the norm? I’ve never been into that culture but it’s now okay to like new age panpipes, which is a wonderful thing. That’s okay now, for people to listen to what they want, I think that’s a good thing. I have no idea why, though. It’s just the age of the internet.
Your singing sounds a lot stronger on this record. You usually sing in a monotone, but during ‘A Light Distraction’ you lift out of it. Is that a portent of things to come?
I think so. I think Dire Dish is more melodic in a way, even if it doesn’t come across that way. I think there are some faux-soul bits that come through on the Final Fare stuff, where I break into a falsetto. There are things that I’m afraid of, and one of those is cheesiness. Sometimes deep inside I know that there’s cheesiness that I love, and I try it and I know I have to go with it. I have to break through the cheese factor.
Another thing I noticed is the new record is a lot more urban sounding, particularly with the lack of the guitar and the more modern sounding synths.
It’s way more modern. The Dire Dish stuff and Vice to Vice were all lo-fi. I took it upon myself with Final Fare to clean things up. I don’t know if this is a definite thing but I like the idea of cleaning things up, so I bought myself some recording gear. I recorded it myself and I just wanted to experiment with cleaner sounds because it’s something I haven’t really done before. It’s still not high fidelity, but I wanted to approach it more compositionally. The actual lines that were coming out were more audible. Maybe it’s as simple as that, maybe it’s just more audible and the melody is more present.
Finally, you’re also working on another project, Legendary Hearts. Can you tell me about that?
That’s with Kieran, who plays in Superstar. We discussed getting together and it took over a year before we actually had a rehearsal. It’s basically just him and I, looking for softer sounds. It’s more improvisational, and it’s a real noodling band. We’re releasing something soon on Dungeon Taxi. It’s as simple as two friends getting together and trying to create something we like. No two shows are the same, and we don’t know what is going to happen.
Final Fare will be available through Bedroom Suck later this year. Dire Dish can be downloaded at Boomkat.