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Mr Gee (Greg Sekweyama) has been a veteran on the UK’s spoken word scene for over two decades. Well known as the “Poet Laureate” on Russell Brand’s SONY award-winning Radio show, he has toured the world with Brand many times in the more recent past, all done without controversy on the part of the man some of us affectionately know as Rusty Rockets. He has also delivered two Tedx talks and his work has been featured in the Times, The Guardian & the New Statesman. He’s worked on and presented several radio shows and ongoing series, including “Bespoken Word”, “Rhyme & Reason” and “Poetic Justice” for BBC Radio 4, the latter of which focused on the extensive rehabilitation work that Gee has done in prisons.
As a die-hard listener of his time working with Russell Brand and Matt Morgan (another friend of the site), I reached out to Mr Gee to talk further about his experience on that podcast as poet laureate, how he came to be involved in the show and play such an iconic role. We also spoke in depth about his work as a poet, poetry’s direct relationship with music (hip hop in particular), ‘Sachsgate’, and his experiences of growing up in a Britain rife with racism, lack of multi-cultural acceptance and how that has shaped his character.
Disclaimer: Mr. Gee and I also spoke about a whole lot more so do find a quiet reading space for this one. It is worth every sentence.
Mr. Gee, how long have you been known as Mr. Gee and why?
My nickname has been “G” since… forever. I started DJ’ing in the 90s and back then it was fitting to give yourself a DJ name. I chose “Mr. Gee” simply because I was a fan of Mr. T from the “A Team”. When I started doing poetry, I carried the name over but people assumed that “Gee” was my surname. I didn’t care enough to correct them. Personally, having an alias works for me, it allows me to switch on and switch off from the world. Mr. Gee sits and writes his simple poetry while Greg [Sekweyama] lives his complicated life.
How did you get started and get into performance and poetry?
Do you come from a family involved in these areas?
It was more of an accident really, I don’t come from a performing family: I originally started off in a team of DJs mainly playing out at bars and clubs around Brixton and South London in the 90s. I was never really comfortable on the mic and preferred to hide behind the turntables. We would usually book a singer or an MC to do a live slot and entertain the crowd. But then on one of our Valentine’s nights, we decided to do something different and showcase some live poetry. This encouraged me to put pen to paper and try reading a poem on stage. The crowd enjoyed it so much that we started getting requests to have more poets perform at our nightclub and so it became a regular fixture. At that time (the early 2000s) I didn’t know of any poets who performed, so I then had to figure out a way to keep delivering new poems that would work each night. I started practicing and performing at tiny open-mic nights all over London and Mr. Gee the poet was born.
Musically, some types of Hip Hop (MF Doom, RZA, GZA, King Geedorah, etc.) seem to me to be directly linked to the power of spoken word poetry, which of course I adore. Can you talk about this relationship and its attraction?
I grew up on Hip Hop and Reggae which are intensely lyrical art forms. Your average singer will only ever use about 200 words in a song which are largely melody-driven. But an average rap could easily contain double or triple that number of words. So, the listener is getting an avalanche of expression that in comparison feels highly vocal and urgent. In my opinion, this is the reason why rap doesn’t naturally lean into subtle suggestion; it competes with other musical forms by its implicit directness and attention-grabbing nature (there are other reasons for this which I’ll explain later). So people shouldn’t really compare the art of MC’ing with the art of singing because they come from different places and serve different functions. They’ll have a better understanding of Rap’s role in entertainment if they see it as operating on the same frequency as a sports commentator’s spiel, a preacher’s sermon, or a circus ringmaster’s pitch. It can be funny, serious, insightful, stupid, provocative, explicit, emotional, or crass. But because of the volume of words exhaled, it’s all done in a very bombastic fashion. It was this range of amplified emotions that initially attracted me.
How about your own personal experience with rap and hip hop in that sense – and ‘Fuck Tha Police’ by NWA?
I was a die-hard Ice Cube fan from the first time that I heard him with NWA. It’s hard for someone nowadays to fathom how shocking a song “Fuck Tha Police” truly was. It scared people and I remember it being blasted out of every car that passed by at the time. It tapped into years of silenced rage that most black kids felt growing up (myself included). Police harassment was an everyday occurrence, everyone I knew had experienced a traumatic interaction with the police. Yet finally here was a song that expressed a real situation in the most explicit way possible, it became a universal anthem for us. Only 80’s Hip Hop could credibly make such a beautifully blunt statement while the rest of the world was dancing to Kylie Minogue. It was tunes such as these that made me realise how powerful spoken words could be and why there will always be a need for art to question society, even [if it’s] in the crudest way possible. Volcanic voices forged within the heated lava pit are born to erupt into the midday sky. Think about this: as I’m writing this now; Queen Elizabeth has just died and the country is in a state of official mourning. Simultaneously there are people gathering in Central London to protest against the killing of Chris Kaba, an unarmed black man who was shot dead by the police in South London. Two different states of mourning which will require two different anthems to be played.
Have you ever considered delving into written poetry or maybe an album of your own spoken poetry?
Yes, I’ve recently been trying to pitch my poetry to publishers in the hope of getting a collection printed. The world of printed poetry is very different to that of the live scene, the energy is dialed down, so the approach has to be different. I contributed a poem and a short story for an anthology called “The Other Windrush” (Pluto Press) and I had another poem called “The Butterfly Effect” which was published in an anthology called “Humane Justice” (Khullisa). Over the years I’ve dipped in and out of experimenting with music and poetry, it’s been a bit like firing a rubber band into a thunderstorm and never hearing it land. But I’ve enjoyed the process of trying out different poetic and musical ideas. The last serious music project that I completed was called “Rhythms and Thoughts” it was released on my Soundcloud site back in 2017. It actually received a little buzz in the Middle East and I was invited to perform in Lebanon off the back of it, but unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was unable to travel and promote it better.
I’m actually quite proud of it as an artistic project. It conveyed a lot of stuff that I was thinking about at the time.
How did you first get involved with the Russell Brand show and become the poet laureate?
I first met Russell around 2001, he came down to perform at an open-mic night that I attended in Brixton. We chatted afterward and hit it off. Back then, he’d only done a few bits on MTV and Xfm. I first saw him as just another aspiring artist trying to make their dream come true. He was also pretty heavily into drugs which had a strong hold on his life, so I had to be mindful that a drug addict’s first love is their next hit. But despite his addiction, he always had an intensely strong drive to perform and was always thinking of comedic ideas that he could try out on stage. He’s a natural-born comedian and comes alive when the spotlight hits him. When I first met him, I was beginning to tire of DJing and wanted to explore more the performing side of poetry. But I knew nothing about being comfortable on stage. So by watching Russell do his stand-up, I got a first-hand insight into seeing how vague nonsensical ideas could be transformed into an interesting, compelling monologue. It was through Russell that I met Matt [Morgan], and the three of us would often sit around after one of Russell’s gigs in a tiny pub and talk shit together. It was mainly Russell and Matt throwing endless one-liners at each other and me laughing. Comedy comes as naturally to them as breathing, so they were fun to be around. We were always very comfortable in each other’s presence and this is what formed the blueprint for what eventually became the Radio show.
In the late 90’s/early 200s I was doing little bits on pirate radio in Brixton to promote my DJ nights and I would often include poetry within my sets and record it. This led me to being picked up by BBC Radio 4 for a show that I eventually hosted called “Bespoken Word”. “Bespoken Word” was meant to shine a light on the burgeoning UK Spoken Word poetry scene that was starting to find its feet in the 2000s. It seemed that everywhere you looked, there were tiny little poetry nights emerging all over the UK, but it was all completely underground and below the radar of mainstream media.
This was around 2004, YouTube and social media weren’t really a thing, so poets performing in different parts of the UK didn’t really know each other. We’d all developed our own styles; London poets were completely different from Manchester poets who were completely different from Plymouth poets. Nowadays, a poet can share their poetry online and start to build an online presence and be known nationally without having to leave their bedroom. But poets from my era had to do a zillion live performances, sharing countless stages with comedians, folk singers, grime MCs, beatboxers, and dancers in the vain hope of making a little name for ourselves. And even then, you would only ever be known within the vicinity of a few postcodes.
The show “Bespoken Word” had a much more cabaret-type feel, because it was trying to unite the various voices of the UK Spoken Word poetry scene together. We had a multitude of guests: Kae Tempest, Benjamin Zephaniah, Selena Godden, Pete Doherty, Scroobius Pip, John Agard, Raymond Antrobus and loads more. It was a lot of fun and it was great to see live poetry finally being respected as an art form. By the time Russell invited me to be on his Radio Show alongside Matt Morgan and Trevor Lock, I already had quite a bit of Radio experience. But nothing that I did on Radio 4 prepared me for the shows that I did on Radio 2. Having to compose a brand-new poem, on-the-spot, in the moment, and then delivering it just before the show ended was 1000% pure pressure!
I asked Matt Morgan about this when we spoke a while ago. You, like him, come across as very laid-back (from hearing you both) and I wondered how you dealt with Russell’s behavior, which though listening to the show, told me he can be very high maintenance, erratic and unpredictable (and also hilarious).
Haha, that’s funny because I’ve never known Russell to be “Low Maintenance”. I think that you have to comprehend that the Radio show felt much different to me (as a participant) than it did for the listening audience. I was tasked to write a poem, so during each broadcast, my mind was always racing to think of themes that I could link ideas to, and the poem was forever changing throughout the show. I, therefore, welcomed any new drama as a wonderful addition of chaos and confusion which I could now reference, what you heard at the end was the final draft. So, if Russell was acting overly erratic or going off on a tangent, that was all a part of what made the magic work. At any given moment he could bring it all together, just as easily as he could break it all apart. Once you accept this reality, nothing that he did on-air can really piss you off. His humor wasn’t malicious it was manic, the car-crash factor of his personality made everything entertaining. Nobody steps into a Rocketship for a slow and uneventful ride: you listen for the countdown, hold your nuts while it blasts off and say goodbye to planet earth.
You also have to bear in mind that I was in a quite privileged position of being an inside-outside observer. I wasn’t on the front line in the listener’s minds, I was more of a quiet presence within the studio. Matt’s job was to try to delay the car crash for as long as possible and hold off the dragons. But the flux capacitator that truly powered the show was the love-hate relationship between Russell and Matt, their arguments and bickering was truly hilarious (even when it crossed the line). My job was to absorb whatever occurred, to try and extract a metaphor from it all and get that blasted poem written and read on time.
And as you’ve said, this was your first proper introduction to the world of media and show business. What kind of things did you learn or see ‘through’?
I was able to glimpse behind the smoke and mirrors of it all and got to meet many famous people on that show. After a while, I came to the conclusion that all celebrities (regardless of genre) crave the drug of attention in order to survive. They all use whatever tools are available to them to get that next hit, this is what makes them “High Maintenance”. The burning desire to express themselves is only mirrored by the public’s burning desire to be entertained. But all desires burn out eventually and the ocean’s floor is littered with both the strongest and the weakest of ships. It’s this volatile relationship that makes the showbiz machine function. You can become a star and a nobody in the space of a week. It’s only once you’re inside the belly of the beast that you can see what causes all of the hiccups.
There were instances where I got the feeling that some people were ready to ‘walk away’ from the show. Was that ever true for you?
I actually did “walk away” from the Radio show in 2017 but that was only because I was working for a charity to help local kids in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. That tragedy had ignited such strong tensions up and down the country (around the issues of public housing and the treatment of immigrant communities). I wanted to do something but I didn’t want to get caught up in the performance of strong passions that were exploding all over the internet. I wanted to be of practical help. I decided to volunteer for an after-school drop-in centre for kids in the North Kensington area (some of whom were now homeless). Unfortunately for me, the recording time for the Radio Show was then moved and it conflicted with this after-school project and I couldn’t do both. I told Russell, and he understood completely and was cool with it. Luckily the door was left open for me to come back. And I did return for the final show.
On that final show – the Sachs gate incident. How did you react to it all – did you think the outpouring of outrage was a bit over the top (as I did)?
Again, I’ll be brutally honest. I didn’t think that the Sachsgate incident was that bad. You can hear me laughing in the background when Jonathan Ross uttered the “Granddaughter” comment. But the press had a field day with it. The UK press are funny, this was October 2008: the banks had collapsed and the financial world was in ruins, Barack Obama was set to become the first black president and yet they decided to run Sachsgate as being the biggest story that month. I don’t think that anyone who was involved with the Russell Brand radio show at that time will ever forget Sachsgate. One minute we were celebrated SONY Gold Award-winning Radio royalty, the next minute our name was mud, and being discussed in Parliament as “destroying Britain’s morals” – it was all absolutely bonkers. The media frenzy was unreal, I used to secretly meet up with the producer and the other Radio 2 staff in a tiny cafe just to process it all and check in to see if they were alright. We had all become intensely paranoid about being followed and the press were hoping that we would be a weak link to get to Russell and Jonathan. Newspapers were offering me £25K+ for an expose and even sent reporters to a school where I was performing at a morning assembly.
That’s pretty fascinating.
In hindsight, the canceling of the Radio 2 show gave us all a much-needed breather. Russell was trying to break into the movies, Matt was living in LA and I had been performing in the West End for a whole year doing 8 shows a week. So as dramatic as it was, the end of the show allowed us all to have a healthy amount of space that every relationship needs. Life was moving too fast and we were all already going in different directions. Funnily enough, the reason why Andrew Sachs didn’t answer his phone was that he was doing a pre-record for another show on Radio 4 and it had overrun. I actually knew the producer of that show and in the weeks that followed she rang me up and said “I think that I owe you an apology”. I told her not to worry, the show was probably destined to go off the rails from the first moment that it aired. That is why the people loved it so much.
Russell once blurted out on air that you used to be in the Nation of Islam and you replied: “..a little bit”. Can you tell me about being connected to that particular group and what drew you to it?
I think that in order to answer your question properly, first, you have to understand that I grew up in the 1970s & 1980s London. That timeframe is very important because London wasn’t considered multicultural back then, it was very tribal and extremely racist, I grew up hearing the N-word on a daily basis, spoken by teachers, police officers, and kids at school. Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech had taken hold on people’s minds and the National Front were a genuine political force to be reckoned with (people were still throwing bananas and making monkey chants at black football players on the terraces). As numbers of Black and Brown immigrants started to increase in London’s inner cities, “White Flight” became a real thing.
Secondly, you have to keep in mind that my upbringing and socialisation was very different from both Russell’s and Matt’s. I grew up as a child of immigrants in a time before “political correctness”, before “tolerance and diversity” and before “woke-ism”. There was no social media back then, so the day-to-day racism that occurred largely went unnoticed. I’m half Indo-Guyanese and half black Ugandan a mixture of India & Africa. The majority of my family does not live in the UK, so the feeling of isolation was very real.
What other types of things did you experience and what does that do to you, mentally and in outlook?
As a child, I remember having to run off the streets with my Indian mum because a gang of skinheads were marching; greeting us with “Seig Heils” and waving at us with “Nazi salutes”. As soon as we got inside, we had to move a cabinet to block the front door in case anyone tried breaking in. So while the rest of the UK was at home comfortably watching “Only Fools and Horses”, “Allo, Allo” and “Fawlty Towers”, I knew of families who were having shit put through their letterboxes. I wasn’t angry as a kid, I just thought that this was how England was. This rejection became internalised and I started to view myself as being “other than”. In the ’80s my mother used to take me to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where we would see an Indo-Guyanese speaker called Roy Sawh. He was a legend amongst West Indians, he spoke so viscerally about the two-faced hypocrisy inbuilt within British society that hundreds of people used to clamour to see him. He provided another voice.
As I grew up, I was no longer a kid and had long stopped running. But the final trigger for me was the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the racism within the police force in how they handled his death. Stephen was around my age but his murder wasn’t a singular event, it was one of many. Me and my friends grew up hearing lots of other names; Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal, Colin Roach, black and brown teenagers who had either been killed by gangs of white youths or died in police custody. My mum was always telling me to “be careful” every time that I stepped out of our flat. I started to view racism as something that white people did naturally without thinking and I knew that I had to find coping strategies to deal with their world. [I saw] a world that seemed to eternally view people who looked like me as a problem. I needed to look for black groups to see how they dealt with the bullshit that I saw before me. I’d listen to the Nation of Islam, Rastafarians, Pan Africanists, the Black Panthers, Socialists, Anti-Racist league….anybody.
What did you get from groups like these?
I found things that I agreed with as well as things that I disagreed with. I didn’t care much for divisive theology but neither was I interested in white people only being nice to me out of some patronising guilt. I came to understand that black people have been carefully and effectively erased from history which has distorted the world’s perception of us and our perception of ourselves (there’s a reason why you know the name Julius Caeser but not Septimius Severus). I also believe that black people need to relearn how to love each other again. We’ve been nursed on a diet of hatred for so long, that it becomes difficult for us to see value within ourselves. This engenders a precarious position where only our extreme behaviour gets noticed and celebrated (every other facet of our expressions gets side-lined or ignored). Think about it; black people are the only people who entertain the whole world with music detailing their own self-destructive behaviour, and the whole world dances. So I understand the need for such black groups to emerge and promote another narrative, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or a Gospel Church on Sunday.
Obviously, it would have been ludicrous to even try to lay out such a nuanced explanation within the confines of a light-entertainment show on Radio 2. So my answer of “a little bit” was my way of saying that “I’m still on a complicated journey and I’m not going to perform my ‘blackness’ on a Radio show when I’m still trying to figure things out for myself.”
What effect did covid and lockdown have on you mentally – obviously career wise it would have been difficult as you mainly work in theatre and on stages in front of an audience and with other people?
I absolutely hated Covid and all of the ramifications of it. It totally killed the live-performing scene. I’ve never been a big-name performer I’m still a drifting unknown, so live shows are my bread and butter. I like bouncing from venue to venue and seeing what’s going on. It’s my way of socialising, working through new material, gaining inspiration, listening to new music, etc. Covid created a hand-sanitised blob of devastation. I remember going to a party in March 2020 and three people who attended ended up dying from the coronavirus later that year. That was an almighty wake-up call. I’ve had a few close deaths in my own family and had to watch the funerals online, it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
I caught Covid myself in 2021 and it wiped me out for a few months. I was getting that brain-fog and finding it hard to take in information and memorize stuff. It slowly subsided but shook my self-confidence as a performer. As a result, I became quite reclusive, put on weight, and became very insular. Russell invited me to go on tour last year but I told him that I wasn’t really ready or comfortable being around crowds. This year I’ve started stepping out more and doing a few more shows. The live performing scene is starting to rebuild itself and I’m starting to get my old weight back. But I can’t overstate how crushing Covid was to the live performance circuit, to the plethora of talented people who made their living on stage, not social media. I know loads of comedians, poets, singers, dancers and musicians that have quit their dreams because they couldn’t sustain themselves. Luckily, I was able to offer a lot of online teaching workshops and write for big data tech companies which kept me afloat.
What advice do you generally give to young people you work with who may not have any idea how to enter these industries? Particularly when some may come from underprivileged backgrounds.
People entertained poetry in a different way than they do comedy or music, but they are entertained nonetheless. So by deciding to be a poet, I had to follow a different path than a comedian or a musician. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a comedian or musician, so I had to find a tribe that would value me and my passion. My main advice would be to throw yourself into your passion and not get fixated with money. The minute that you enter the entertainment industry, you’re entering a workplace of extreme financial insecurity. So you have to ask yourself “What is it that you are trying to achieve?”. Some people desire fame or acceptance, but such things are fleeting unless they are rooted in something real.
It’s your passion for your art that will create the opportunities, that will in turn bring you rewards. But the number of hours that you will end up investing into your artistic passion will be phenomenal. I know musicians who are constantly rehearsing, actors who are constantly learning lines, painters who are constantly experimenting on canvas. When I first met Russell, he was an encyclopedia of comedy routines and was always trying stuff out on stage. I’m constantly writing poems, it’s somewhat of an obsession for me, it’s a way of me trying to relate to a world that confuses me.
My advice is to hone in on your craft (whatever it may be) and work at it constantly. Then you have to start connecting with other artists and share ideas. Iron sharpens iron, so just being around creative people helps to encourage your own creativity. If you spend too much time in the company of people who doubt your ability or fail to see the point of your dream, then their doubts will become internalised by you.
Another thing that young people have to be aware of when they enter the world of entertainment is how grueling and unforgiving it is. You need to have a strong sense of who you are and what you are capable of delivering, otherwise, your passion can turn into a nightmare. If you are solely driven by a need to be seen, to be loved, to be appreciated, you can find yourself twisting and turning yourself inside out, just to be noticed. And if your livelihood depends on attention, it creates an unstable existence.
Do you still go into prisons and do workshops – quite a brave thing to do in my opinion, have you ever felt intimidated to go in there?
Working in prisons is the most challenging aspect of my work. I decided to start working inside back in 2008, ironically it was just before Sachsgate and I was feeling directionless. On paper, I was doing well: I was appearing on a West End stage every night, I was a part of a hugely successful Radio 2 show and I had my own series on Radio 4. Life was good and being “Mr. Gee” was now my full-time job. But the world of media and entertainment can be quite one-dimensional and it’s easy for your whole existence to be reduced to an aggregation of rhyming punchlines. I wanted to have a deeper and more meaningful purpose for what it was that I was doing.
I volunteered to run some workshops at Brixton prison and when I went in there, I saw a lot of people who I knew. Older black men like myself who had been chewed up by the system: poor education, limited job opportunities, no money all resting within a cauldron which saw them as worthless to begin with. I was lucky because I had the outlet of poetry to express myself, but their outlet of expression had been limited to criminal activity and destructive violence towards each other. I saw a lot of self-hatred being manifested by these men and I understood some of the root causes. I read out several poems that would never work on Radio 2 or Radio 4 but here in Brixton prison, they worked because we spoke the same language. We recognised the same arrangements of syllables.
And what about any trepidation?
In terms of “feeling intimidated”, yes of course you always feel a heightened sense of danger. I’ve seen a fight break out in the blink of an eye and blood splattered everywhere. But that was between already warring gang factions, within my classes, I try to set ground rules of common respect. If we all agree to appreciate each other’s humanity, we can build a foundation from there.
What are you most proud of in your career thus far and where/ which areas or paths do you see yourself going down next?
I think that the best live show that I ever did was supporting Russell at the Sydney Opera House. It was such a great time and a great show, everything came together and we all had a lot of fun, Andrew Garfield came backstage (he was filming ‘Hacksaw Ridge’) and said “hi”, I kept forgetting his name calling him “Peter”.
Another great moment for me was the poem that I wrote called “Three Rivers” which was included in the book “The Other Windrush” (published in 2021). It deals with the violence that occurred in Guyana in the 1950s and 1960s. Before, during, and after independence, Guyana went through a lot of troubled times. In the 1950s Winston Churchill sent British troops in to shut down and arrest the country’s first democratically elected Government and everything spun out of control after that. I wrote the poem because I’m half-Guyanese and I wanted to understand the political events that had directly affected my family and caused them to leave and be scattered around the world.
Another great highlight has been the work that I’ve most recently been doing within the Data tech industry. I’ve coined the phrase “Data poetry” to describe what I do. Much like the poems on Russell’s Radio 2 show, for the past few years, I’ve been invited to Data System conventions and commissioned to write poems. This resulted in me working for the Open Data Institute which was founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the internet). I developed a digital-art piece called “Bring Me My Fire Truck” which incorporates Google Translate, William Blake’s poetry, and an airport arrivals board to explore the “spirit of Brexit”, it was first showcased at the Tate Britain museum as a part of their “Blake Now” exhibition. That was a very proud moment for me.
What projects are you currently working on – where can admirers like I go check out what you’re up to?
Currently, I’m the lead artist at my local Arts Centre Rich Mix. I’m helping to run a youth project called “New Creatives” where we offer practical expertise and advice to young people on honing in on their artistic talent. I’ve been working as a poet for over 20 years now and I feel that I have a more realistic approach to my craft.
I feel that I have a better understanding of what I’m doing now than I did when I was insanely scribbling little poetical quips every Saturday night. For me, being a poet is a lifestyle, it allows me the opportunity to enter and leave different worlds and hopefully learn a little along the way. Not everyone can be as charismatically brilliant as a Russell Brand or a Matt Morgan, but the possibilities in this world for someone with an artistic mind are huge. Once you expand beyond the limited thinking of your environment, you can venture into several different arenas. I’ve stood on huge stages in front of thousands of people, sat in jail cells, and read poetry to convicted murderers, I’ve even conversed with the top Data scientists on the planet about the future of work. But deep down it’s all poetry to me.
Greg, Mr. Gee, it’s been a real pleasure, thank you for your time.
Mr. Gee doesn’t have an official website however please follow his regularly updated Instagram page
Check out more of his work on Soundcloud
The Automat, which premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival is emerging director Lisa Hurwitz’s debut film and details probably the first truly ‘fast food’ dining experience of its kind in the US. Founded by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in 1888, Automats became popular and iconic for millions of New Yorkers and Philadelphians for more than a century. The technology of an Automat was quite something for the time, in the sheer simplicity, mostly; the customer would put nickels into slots and little windows opened to reveal the customer’s pick, be it a slice of pie, macaroni and cheese, or a Salisbury steak. And a franchise is born.
Lisa spent eight years interviewing dozens of celebrities and former employees and visiting far-flung places where collectors hoard the surviving remnants of the once spectacular Automat restaurants. One of the most distinctive voices in the documentary is that of legendary comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks. Lisa nailed a meeting with Mel which led to a chain of other celebrities who agreed to be interviewed, like Carl Reiner, who breakfasted there before going to the studio, Ruth Bader Ginsburg who did her homework there after school and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell who went there regularly with his family.
Felten Ink caught up with Lisa Hurwitz to discuss the making of her first feature documentary, what grabbed her interest in the first place and the simple art of signing (in the UK we say ‘blagging’) high profiles up to one’s first major project.
The Automat was your first move into directing. How did you find the process and did your experience of it give you a taste for more?
I was able to take the production of the film at my own pace and fit it in during my spare time over the course of 8 years. At that particular point in my life that was just right. That certainly gave me a taste for making a high-quality film and I’m planning to continue on this path.
Why did it take so long and did you ever consider abandoning at any point?
The film was happening in my spare time and took a long time because I was working while making the film. It took a long time because my editors I wanted to work with had waiting lists. It’s a good thing it took a long time because we would not have had that cast if it was completed quickly. It also took an extra year because I sat on the film the first year of Covid since I wanted to be in theaters. No, I never considered giving up to my recollection. I loved the project and just chipped away at it little by little.
What kind of background did you have up until becoming a first-time director?
I was a first-time director while I was doing other things. I worked in the non-profit arts for a cinema, for film festivals, for a performing arts center. I also worked at a public relations agency.
What interested you about the Automat?
I was eating in my university cafeteria and volunteering at the local 1920s movie palace as a 35mm film projectionist. I was a bit obsessed with cooking, with the New York Times food section, with Martha Stewart. When I heard about the automat in my school library I wanted to know more and was researching the topic for fun. At a certain point I decided I wanted to create a film about it. I started researching cafeterias and discovered a PhD dissertation by Alec Shuldiner entitled “Trapped Behind the Automat: Technological Systems and the American Restaurant, 1902-1991.” I was curious about Alex’s strong emotional attachment to the material, reflective of the nostalgia that I’d later find when interviewing people who had frequented the Automat. By 2013, I had the same passion for Horn and Hardart that others had felt, and began the project.
What lessons did you learn working on a project like this for the first time?
I learned lot of important lessons but mainly to dream big and to believe in myself.
Some of the people interviewed are huge profiles, some ‘stars’, some influential in politics. How did you go about making the decision on who you wanted?
That wasn’t easy. At some point there was an overhaul of the cut and all at once a bunch of people disappeared from the film. It was a puzzle, figuring out who went together, who could carry an entire section or be a presence throughout the entire film.
I adore Mel Brooks. How did you get him involved and eventually get him to create the films theme song “(There Was Nothing Like The Coffee) At the Automat”) ?
When I was volunteering at the movie theater during university and ultimately employed there for some years, a guest Carl Gottlieb came through the theater for a screening of a film he wrote Jaws 3D. Carl offered to tell Mel about the film and then Carl told me Mel said to email his assistant, and it all came together fast. The song was a request of mine that was made later after I built a little of a rapport with him.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell – I read that you used an interesting technique to get both parties to agree?
You read correctly. Neither interview was fully secured and I played them against each other in a way to confirm both of them. Each party presumably liked that the other one was in the movie, and I think that sealed the deal. And I flew to DC and we filmed each of them one day after the other. It’s powerful to say “I’m going to be in DC anyways to interview Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and “I’m going to be in DC anyways to interview Colin Powell”.
What can you tell me about your next big project, a romantic comedy set in Italy? Any actors you want involved?
I do have a wish list of both American and Italian actors. I’m at the stage now of getting the script to a draft 2 that I feel is ready to show these people.
I understand you grew up in Los Angeles. What brought you to New York?
I moved to Washington state when I was 18 and was there for a decade before moving to NYC. It felt like a natural progression. I loved New York, I wanted to give it a go.
What type of things have been inspiring you lately and what attracted you to film?
My female friendships. My teeny Manhattan studio apartment. The awards race, I do like a challenge! I had a few high school teachers that were into film. But mainly I’d say when I found that gem of a theater in my college town and decided to get involved there.
How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker, now that you are one?
I’ve been one for a long time, sometimes I say it’s like a made 2 films for the amount of experience I feel I got on this one and the duration. At this particular time I’d say as a filmmaker I’m into crowd-pleasing, making smiles, marketability, strategy, and making stuff that’s both entertaining and good for people.
The Automat seems like a nostalgic piece of work. What’s your opinion on nostalgia and what does it mean to you?
That’s just what we were going for. I think nostalgia gets a bad rap. It can also be self-care. In the case of our film it’s also very poignant and shows how our memories can mean something greater than even what we knew, we can even learn from them. I’m a very warm and fuzzy person. I spend a lot of time thinking about my own memories. I’m probably in the 99th percentile for 32-year-old nostalgics if that is even a word.
Lisa Hurwitz, thank you.
Watch The Automat on Amazon Prime video
Follow Lisa Hurwitz on Instagram
NEW PLAYLIST FOR YOUR LISTENING TREASURE.
Sabrina Nichols is a New York-based visual artist specialising in extremely beautiful, dreamy, peculiar, and almost child-like artwork covering animation and various other types of visual art. She recently teamed up with Radiohead’s ‘artist in residence’, Stanley Donwood (friend of Felten Ink), to create video content for Thom Yorke’s side project with The Smile. The band itself, lest you be late to this particular party, is made up of Yorke, Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, and Sons of Kemet drummer, Tom Skinner. Previously, Nichols has also directed and animated music video content for the likes of The Fall and Car Seat Headrest.
Her work with The Smile is the most brilliant yet, and here, the very modest Ms. Nichols was courteous enough to chat to yours truly about her recent work, the key tools of her trade, and the reasons behind her instinct to ‘create things’.
Can you tell me about your relationship with Stan Donwood and how you came to begin collaborating with each other and then become involved with The Smile?
Besides exchanging a few emails, I am mostly just a fan of Stan Donwood’s work and The Smile’s music. We were connected through The Smile’s label, XL Recordings, who are part of Beggars, the label group that I work at. Gabe Spierer helped connect us all. I tend to make animations in a loose, painterly style with a lot of color, and it worked with the art that Stan created for The Smile’s album release, so it made sense for me to try out some animations with it. I’m glad they liked it and let me make more and more.
What kind of brief do you get for a job like that – I’m not a designer or animator but I would imagine there’s a greater element of freedom?
I always appreciate as much creative freedom as I can get when working with someone else. For The Smile project, I was given a bunch of scanned artwork and a few written animation ideas from Stan [Donwood], and was free to create visuals from there, with a couple of notes from Stan and Thom [Yorke] was all. I do make better work with music that I can connect to, and I’ll always let the song guide the timing of the movements of the visual.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from other artists or animators/ illustrators you admire?
If you want to stay creative you have to spend a lot of time playing, whether it’s with art-making tools or just messing around doing whatever. Also, I’ve learned that making an animation takes a really long time….
I love your work on The Fall’s Frenz video – and the band obviously. Did you ever get the chance to see them live?
Unfortunately, I never had the chance to see them live. A lot of the time I do get to work with bands I love which is very lucky, and if I don’t know them but like the song, I will grow to love them then. I’ll have to listen to the song hundreds of times while creating a video for it, and I learn every part of how it goes.
How long have you been illustrating/ making animated art and what set you off and running in the first place?
I’ve been drawing things since I can remember, and always took a liking to make things when I was bored. Through high school and college, there were a lot more doodles in my notebooks than anything else. There was actually a scary amount of doodling, and then it became repetitive, the same things over and over. It wasn’t until I found out about drawing tablets and animation software in college that this habit became productive, and it lent itself well to animating.
I’m guessing you started sketching at a young age.. which brings me to the ‘doodles’ on your Instagram which I love.
There was not really a moment, just a lot of practicing and wanting to get better, and over time I had a lot of artwork done. Some might be [down to] talent, but I also just draw and animate a lot. Yes… there are some of my favorite notebook doodles from college up on my Instagram. I created that account at first to privately keep track of my drawings and see how they progressed. It’s kind of funny to scroll through to the beginning and see the changes and improvements. I am glad people can look at the dumb drawings I post and enjoy them.
Can you tell me about working with Adult Swim? What kind of things did you do there and tell me about ‘Shit Bitch’?
I was an intern there for a few months working with a bunch of funny and creative people. I worked on the shows that Max Simonet and Dave Bonawits made, such as Bloodfeast, Tender Touches, Fishcenter Live, and Gemusetto Machu Picchu; making small animations, doing voiceovers, and helping out with things. At one point I bought the show Bloodfeast from Max and Dave, and turned it into the Shit Bitch show, where I was the Shit Bitch, a name coined by my fellow intern at the time, Christina Loranger. The show was mostly ‘a bit’ but it failed horribly; it was full of technical issues and had no plot or crossword puzzle, and only lasted one episode. Nonetheless, I’d love to work with Adult Swim some more on other things.
I understand you’re based in New York. What’s it like to live in a city like that for you and working in your profession?
I lived in Rochester, NY for most of my life, and I moved to Brooklyn a couple of years ago to work at Beggars. Before that I was only freelancing from Rochester. The city is pretty busy, full of things to look at everywhere. It is impressive and also smells bad. I am still figuring out if I like it here but for now it is pretty fun. It is nice living here because I can often meet people from various labels or bands who commission videos from me, but mostly animating is solitary work and I am alone at a computer anyway, so I could probably be anywhere.
Where has been the biggest effect on your life as a creative? What experience thus far has been the most beneficial? Money usually brings with it other issues.
Yes, but just because introducing money brings in deadlines and input from others. Sometimes having both of those are very helpful, but also sometimes you can’t bring a piece to where you want it to be because of time restraints and the purpose of the art. I’ve been lucky enough though to work with a lot of very talented musicians and artists, and understanding people in general, and normally welcome their thoughts and feedback.
What are you most proud of and why, in your career or otherwise?
I’m very proud to work at Beggars Group with a lot of people and artists I admire, I am also proud of the work I did a while at Adult Swim. I’m proud of projects I work on with my friends, especially music projects, where I can create and perform music with the people I’m closest to. I’m proud of the 1st animated short I ever made, called “Beware of Florida’s Wildlife”. Finishing that video somehow led me to be able to finish any video.
Do you prefer illustration or animation more and what tools do you use mostly to create?
The two go hand in glove. If time allows for animation I like to animate. But animation can take a brain-crushing amount of time. I like the Adobe creative suite, and hop between After Effects, Premiere and Photoshop mostly. I like a computer that can run as fast as my mind. I like to draw in a sketchbook and use the nice scanner at work to scan drawings in.
What are your hopes for your future?
I want to make something that I love every second of it. I am not sure I’ll ever be completely happy with something I make, I will keep trying forever though. I am excited for the future… there are many people who I’d be thrilled to work with. I am working on a couple of videos for my music project called “shep treasure” and I think the videos are looking ok so far.
Sabrina, thank you.
Follow Sabrina Nichols on Instagram