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.
You may want to have a pen and notepad ready for this one, such is the gargantuan level of artistic reference points cited by Italian lawyer and polarizing artist Elio Mascolo. Mascolo’s art brutally and brilliantly takes aim at such seemingly untouchable public figures that it makes one wonder how the Italian law system hasn’t already had him *gasp* cancelled. Mascolo is an interviewer’s wet dream and full of tremendous statements that make him instantly quotable. In this lengthy exchange, we cover modern-day threats to artistic freedom, his career as a painter-lawyer, cancel culture, the EU, public sector bureaucracy, Greta Thunberg, the Pope, Mascolo’s ‘vintage’ heterosexuality as well as a whole load of his own and well-known others’ philosophy that demands to be reread, noted and preserved.
Mr Mascolo, I’ve never spoken to nevermind interviewed a lawyer who is also creative. How do both vocations affect each other?
Yes, I’m a lawyer but I’m a teacher too – I teach the history of the Byzantine Empire and history of the Balkan countries in Sancti Cyrilli Universitas in Malta and in the public Universiti of Valona in Albania. Both of these commitments provide me with many hints and ideas, but they do not ‘technically’ affect what I paint. Hardly any one of my paintings was induced by the object of my profession. I have often (and happen) to meet good characters for a painting or colleagues who paid well for a portrait. Strangely, none of them wanted a portrait wearing a toga or discussing a trial. Sometimes I have a female subject, but then I almost always paint her naked or with clothes that inspired more agreeable instincts than those induced by a toga. You always have to dig to find something.
What kind of law do you practice?
I am an administrative lawyer. My opponent is always the public administration and I hate it with all my soul.
I’ve read you say you are a lawyer for ‘pleasure’. What kind of pleasure does that profession give you?
Like I say,I deeply despise the public administration, obtuse laws and bureaucrats. I began to be a lawyer for the pleasure of opposing all this and, often, to beat them. But I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years. After the first ten I thought that the public administration and the state bureaucracy are a relentless Moloch. You can win against him a thousand times, but the day after he will pass new laws against which what you have obtained up to then will no longer have any value. Over the following ten years I became more and more convinced that my clients are no better than the administration I despise. Most of them are just people who don’t want to pay taxes or cover up illegal activities; they are the two sides of the same coin. Now I don’t enjoy it anymore. So, at the end of this year, I decided to return the toga … another cycle is over.
How do you find time to be creative?
Every moment of one’s existence is a creative moment, you just need to have enough attentive eyes and enough rich, intense dreams but also a mind capable of creating infinite rhizomes. In fact, I think that the relationship that a painter has with reality has a thousand facets and presupposes a particular quality of the gaze. Faced with a gesture or a landscape, the painter must bring out the conscience details, fragments, reflections and sensations they are generally unaware of and that normally escape. The expression with the mechanism of the real becomes universal, pronounced on behalf of everyone and elaborated on an articulated cultural background: a network of references, unusual combinations, revealing symmetries. It feeds on relationships, cultivated for years or burned in a few meetings, and above all, born from the constant confrontation with the society of its time, in all its aspects, even the most superficial and ephemeral. My ‘inspiration’ is nourished by this reality, by producing ‘surrealist’ observations on human existence. The red thread of my paintings flow from the teeming movement of life itself.
Why or do you think it’s important for art to reflect the artist; authenticity is obviously essential?
I believe that the art expressed and produced by an artist (painter, musician, poet or scammer) can only be the reflection of his skills and ideas. If you don’t express yourself authentically, if you have to strive to be authentic, then you are just an imitator, and you don’t have much to say. So in art (but also in other fields), there are ‘talents’ and ‘geniuses’. The talented man paints, composes verses or music or novels and his works are welcomed by the public. The talented man knows how to please and is rewarded by success, he gets honours and money (the original meaning of the word talent) but his work will not be independent of public consent. He will be successful but he will not have created anything important. The man of genius, on the other hand, creates without caring about the public. Generally, his works are rejected or are imposed by their authority, not by their power of seduction. The future belongs to the man of genius, but the present usually rejects him, often with violence.
Jean-August Ingres stated, “…with talent you do what you want…with genius you do what you can…”
How did you become a lawyer and as a quick follow-up, is painting more of a hobby?
I became a lawyer because my father, who was a lawyer. My older brother is a lawyer, my younger brother is a lawyer, my uncles are lawyers or judges ….in exchange I asked him to be able to study something else as well. So, graduating in law in Bari, I also graduated in history in Rome and in the restoration of paintings on canvas, wood, and frescoes in Florence. After my studies, with a high school friend of mine, I opened a painting restoration company and for seven years I worked for the church and the superintendency of artistic heritage of my city (Bari), then due to a malignant carcinoma caused by organic solvents I had to leave this business. So I started being a lawyer. It was January 2000 (my father’s dream was fulfilled …) but the courts are sad, grey and boring. With my degree in history (obtained at the Pontifical Lateran University), I first obtained a professorship in a Catholic university in Tirana, after one year I was called to the St. Cyrilli University of Malta and two years ago they offered me a professorship in Valona.
I have been painting and drawing since I was three years old. My mother gave me a box of colors and a sketchbook. I never stopped. Now through painting, I focus and ‘live’ in the world, transforming it with the utmost freedom of spirit and with the most prolific and boundless imagination that the world itself inspires in me. Painting enabled me to completely abolish common logic in favor of an imaginative, surreal and subconscious expression. With painting, I can reproduce mental traces built on associative mechanisms and generated by unexpressed sublimated realities. So painting is not a hobby, painting is the air I breathe.
When looking at your works, it seems that you firmly believe in the need for free speech and the right to offend…
Pablo Picasso said: “Painting was not invented to decorate apartments, it is a weapon of offense and defense from the enemy”.
Art is a very powerful means of expression. Now, I don’t think art can kill like a weapon but I believe deeply in freedom of expression and thought. Only art can make you say what you want about what you see exactly as you would like, then, everyone is free to take offense as they see fit. Today, more and more, it is becoming difficult to express oneself without someone not feeling offended. It has become easier to feel offended than to be able to offend. An example: I have portrayed dozens of times the woman with whom I lived 16 years of my life, for me she was the most beautiful living being on this world. I often painted her little dressed, more often absolutely naked. When our story was wrecked, she took all the pictures of the paintings I had taken of her to court and accused me of being a sex maniac (given my status as a lawyer, it was a terrible problem). Then she destroyed them all. So, how many men every day are ‘destroyed’ or ‘brutalized’ even only psychologically by companions to whom they had completely trusted? I hate and despise the rampant concept for which any form of ‘approach’ to the other is now criminalized, of any sex. According to the dominant thought currently, art giants such as Picasso, Balthus, Schiele, Bacon, Freud and many others, would have been arrested immediately because of their ‘stormy’ relationships with their partners, models or muses.
In your work you appear to be making a mockery, satirizing, even insulting ‘important’ people – politicians, social activists, the Pope. I do tend to applaud those you pillory.
How do you choose who you paint or ‘take aim’ at?
I do not choose the subjects of my paintings. It is they who offer themselves to my observation, it is they who ‘knock’ at my studio crowding behind the door. The whole of Western society is the primary source of inspiration … its ever-lower level of cultural, ethical, aesthetic misery. The unstoppable decline into which our culture is precipitating without even bothering to die elegantly. In a society that is incredibly suffocating itself with the noose of his paucity. In reality, I don’t think I offend anyone; I oppose with all my strength the imposition of being ‘politically correct’, the most monumental form of sinister hypocrisy that is pulverizing freedom of expression and thought. It is reducing everything to a single thought that a sane person with a shred of cultural and mental dignity cannot possibly bear. Here, often the subjects of my paintings are characters whose ‘impositions’ offend my intellectual dignity.
Do you consider yourself a polemista?
I don’t think I’m a ‘polemicist’. Perhaps a cynic (of the school of Diogenes), at least in the way of seeing and facing the things of life. And a heretic in the way of thinking and expressing my ideas with painting. [I’m the] child crying: “THE KING IS NAKED!”
What kind of freedom does art give you?
I don’t know if being an artist makes you more free, I think there are more narrow-minded and obtuse artists than people who have never picked up a brush in their hand but have freedom in their eyes, in their minds, in their souls. I am sure however that a gifted artist knows how to give a more ‘acute’ voice to his libertarian essence. Slaves are born, free you die. The satirical cartoonist Stephan Charbonnier (the director of Charlie Hebdo), 48 hours before his death, published a book whose incipit was a quote from Emiliano Zapata: “It is much better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” I think exactly the same thing.
Do you consider yourself a ‘political’ artist?
I am not ‘very political’. I am absolutely anarchist, neither right nor left. My political reference is Buenaventura Durruti. Unfortunately, however, politics, directly or indirectly, alters and manipulates the daily existence of every human being. The total submission of politics to finance. The absolute detachment between politics and people’s real life is the thing I hate and fight most and it is the thing I fear the most; what really frightens me about politics is the silent but unstoppable destruction of social freedom. I wonder if ours is still a free society? By now it is evident that all the conditions for a new “different” dictatorship are being fulfilled. Freedom is being destroyed, language is being increasingly impoverished, truth is being abolished, history is being suppressed, nature is denied, while hatred spreads. Our age has lost all reference. What awaits us beyond the ‘nice’ media?
How does the media affect your creative or artistic work, social versions, or elsewhere?
I’m not (and I don’t care) the influence of the media. At most I get ideas. Basically, I think media is a giant steamroller that flattens everything in its path; a form of total democracy in which everyone can say everything regardless of the value of what they say and who says it. It is a huge cauldron into which millions and millions of ingredients are poured that gives an absolutely indefinable flavor and final shape. Like when mixing all the colors of the palette in one container, the result is a non-color. The media, however, frighteningly influence those who look at art, they ‘suffer’ it. The viewer is absolutely subservient to this neo-language which is now a system of power. Even though the spectator does not understand, he pretends to understand for fear of not being ‘admitted’ to the assembly of the ‘intelligent’, so he appears dramatically more idiotic than he is, and queues up, in silence, to cheer those who mock him …
Is it possible to judge art objectively?
I don’t know if art (except for some very evident cases) can be judged in another way that is not absolutely subjective. Certainly, for me, a good part (most of) contemporary art, the conceptual one, the hard one, the one we look at without absolutely understanding anything and inside us we say ‘I could have done it too and even better’, the one that needs thousands of abstruse words to be explained and eyes are no longer enough to admire it, well that art is just a huge hole with something (not much really) around it. And yet, this art of senselessness, of provocation, often of horror, has a history and causes that should be known both by those who adore it and by those who would like to protect themselves from the ugliness inherent in it.
I like your illustration of Greta Thunberg. What’s your personal opinion on her?
She is a little girl unaware of her role, a tiny wheel of a gigantic economic gear artfully built around her, good for any situation. After her performance on the environment, she also ventured into the sea of the Covid pandemic. [ She is] a not too cute puppet well trained. In Italy, if a child, even sick, does not go to school for weeks and remains, like Andersen’s little match girl, exposed to the elements with a sign hanging from her neck on a sidewalk, a judge would have the parents arrested and would order the intervention of social services… I prefer Severn Cullis Suzuky (the girl who silenced the world). Remember the UN Environment Summit in 1992? Little Severn, in absolute autonomy and without mega-organization behind her, said better and earlier the same things repeated by the Swedes.
And then there’s the painting of Pope Francis… which was also funny.
I am an atheist, but I also studied in a Christian and Catholic university, a true institution of the church of Rome. I have an education and a culture deeply imbued with the history of our Judeo-Christian society, with full knowledge of the facts I can therefore say that this Bergoglio is ‘a nice person’ and not much more. Theologically, he is an absolute nullity, he’s managed to do more damage to the church in 7 years than the secular world in 2000 years… perhaps because he looks a lot like Stan Laurel, he tells a lot of nonsense without substance and depth. With him, faith and doctrine have disappeared. He is so Jesuit that he took the name of the first of the Franciscans!
As you know now, I have a Greek wife, but regardless of that fact, it seems to me, quite a healthy thing to lampoon Turkish President Erdogan… a vile character. Your painting insults him brilliantly.
The painting depicting Erdogan humping the Von Der Leyen was painted almost 2 years ago. It is a hymn to the uselessness of the EU in the face of the incredible maneuvers and blackmail of an unscrupulous dictator like Erdogan and the needs dictated by the markets. Turkey is however an excellent economic and strategic partner of Germany and the EU is a foolish servant. It would be useless to list the monstrosities perpetrated by the ‘sultan’ against his own people and many others, ignoring (I don’t want to take a history lesson) the total manipulation of basic civil rights.
What do you see as the current biggest threat to artistic freedom?
I believe that a truly dangerous threat to art can only come from itself. Since Duchamp’s exhibition of his urinal 100 years ago changed the destiny of art forever, art has since begun to expand its competencies with excessive prodigality; it has lent its guarantees to an infinite number of ‘projects’ that have turned out to be totally unsuccessful, inconsistent, pretentious and all too often insignificant. For a long time now, art has to be seen with the ears and no longer just with the eyes; its existence is only assured if it is supported by a robust theory, i.e. by the most important, sophisticated and grandiloquent terms and adjectives possible that illustrate its meaning to a gullible and good-for-everything public.
Having completely lost sight of the primordial concept that was at the basis of art, that of beauty, which it has evidently long since renounced, and having lost the backbone of aesthetics, art has ended up by flattening itself on vacuous and increasingly disturbing concepts. However, the most insidious danger for the freedom to create and, in my opinion, always more serious, derives (as I have already mentioned) from the unstoppable spread of two monstrous phenomena; the ‘politically correct’ and ‘cancel culture’, two real abominable ogres, those who in my opinion are the armed wing of progressivism, which, find very fertile ground in our now completely anesthetized web society… A society in which freedom has been severely but inexorably restricted; a society in which progress means being constantly monitored and spied on; it means not having a private life, an intimate life, a personal life; it means having to ignore calm, silence, and solitude; it means being repertoire and filed in order to be able to satisfy the markets more effectively.
I enjoy listening to your overall outlook; you cite Emile Cioran for example and many others who I adore.
What inspires you the most, what gives you the strength to create, past living artists, filmmakers, musicians or present?
I certainly love various artists whose way of approaching things I have perhaps assimilated more than their way of painting. Of course, the paintings of Dali and Magritte fascinates me a great deal, the style and line of Schiele and Klimt are absolutely inimitable, as is the unsurpassed technique of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, or the genius of Picasso, Caravaggio or Masaccio, but they already had intuitions and ideas that they realised wonderfully. It is in my reading, in my music, and in what surrounds me and crowds my daily life and, no less important, in the female body,that I find cues, images, ideas and topics that I then translate into frames of imagination. For example, when I’m in Albania for university and experience the chaotic and varied everyday life of the streets of Vlora or the markets of Tirana, I feel like I’m immersed in a screenplay by E. Kusturiza. But when I talk to the people who live and animate those places, I feel as if I were dipping my hands into the ink that flows from the pen of Milan Kundera, all set to music by Bregovic and Satie! So in my memory, images are indelibly printed that will come in handy, sooner or later, in some painting.
As for women’s bodies as inspiration and passion, apart from my now ‘vintage’ heterosexuality (I am white and heterosexual and this makes me an animal in extinction), I believe that only in them is it possible (not always, of course) to merge the beautiful and the sublime. But from Rimbaud, Baudelaire to Rilke, from Garcia Marquez, Orwell or Borges, to Tournier, Houellebecq, Calvino or Camus, from Cioran, Agamben to Onfray, it is among them that I look for emotions and the commotion capable of ‘moistening’ my soul so that it doesn’t dry up too much in contact with the ugliness or paucity that assails reality. Reading and listening to music are my drug. Knowing, feeling and wanting to know and see more and more is my incurable disease. Curiosity is my sea.
I associate with your take that music is a drug – can you talk more about its importance to you?
I believe that music is the breath of the world. I think life without music would be very miserable and I personally listen to music all the time. When I’m working in the studio and if I have a particularly challenging act to prepare, I listen to music appropriate to the difficulty of the moment; as well as when I’m preparing lectures for university or doing research or when I’m painting; and when I’m driving, all the time. I can whistle every note of an infinite number of tunes. One day in court, while walking down one of its huge corridors, I whistled ‘The Man I Love’. A judge looked at me with disgust and said, “Remember you are a lawyer!”
“I remind you that this is Ghershwin”, I replied, “…a little more than most lawyers”. He told me I was crazy and other things I didn’t understand. Every moment of my life clings to a note, a melody.
When my son was born I learnt by heart the notes of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ by Mozart. When the little one cried at night, in order not to wake up his mother and make him fall asleep again, I whistled ‘My Favourite Things’ – the version by D. Brubeck, or ‘Riders On The Storm’ by The Doors (maybe that’s why he hates me today). When his mother left with him, I sat on an armchair and played at full volume Chopin’s ‘Farewell Waltz’ and E.L.P.’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’.When I’m painting I listen to Bach played by G. Gould, the Goldberg Variations usually or the Concerto No.7 in G minor.… Anyway, I haven’t seen that wonderful child for years now, but every night before I go to sleep I still listen to “My Favourite Things”.
Can you tell me about any upcoming projects or works?
At the moment, apart from a couple of portraits that have been commissioned, I am working on several projects. The first is a small, short exhibition that I have been organising every summer for the last four years in the law firm of a friend and colleague of mine, who opens to art and people his beautiful studio in the centre of a beautiful old village in a small, characteristic town in the ‘Itria valley’, Cisternino. I am also working on three series of themed paintings.
The first one is entitled: “Al più peggio non c’è mai fine”. In the Italian language, to say “Al più peggio non c’è mai fine” is a frightening grammatical error, but these words came out of the mouth of our Minister of Education (F. Fedeli), who was later found to have lied about her qualifications and her entire curriculum. For a country whose Minister of Foreign Affairs (and almost all of its MPs and Senators) does not speak a word of English, it is absolutely normal to have a Minister of Education who does not know his own language. It, therefore, seemed to be a good title for an exhibition on the level of absolute incompetence and inadequacy of some individuals who, however, due to circumstances completely unrelated to their merits, find themselves tragically deciding the fate and lives of many other unfortunate and unwitting people. To each of these characters I have matched a person of completely opposite thickness and value or even worse, for example, to the former President of the Republic, Napolitano, an ambiguous, factious, and instrumentally opportunistic character, I have matched Vaclav Havel, a true Martian compared to ours; to a well-known and influential judge who believes that it is enough to enter a court to be guilty, I have matched R. Freisler, “the Hitler judge”, who thought like ours and condemned to death all the members of the White Rose (as well as thousands of other innocents), just by applying the law.
The second series is entitled “Me Tooooo”. Obviously, I am referring to the well-known Hollywood movement according to which a great many artists (I am obviously referring to painters) who have made the history of universal art, for what had been their relationships with the opposite sex or their partners, would certainly have been tried, arrested and ‘erased’, with the result that today we would not have Guernica or the Deemoiselle d’Avignon or Guitar Lessons or the Lovers or Three Studies for a Crucifixion or Standing by the rags or many others.
The third series is entitled ‘Red Shoes’.
Granted that for me all forms of murder are absolutely unacceptable, regardless of the gender and tendencies of the victims (except for the killing of children which is an even more inconceivable monstrosity), I am quite skeptical about the current emphasis and narrative that a man who kills a woman is worse than any other murderer and a woman killed by a man (regardless of the circumstances) is more of a victim than another murdered person. For me, every death is equally heinous without excuse.
As a male, however, I claim with all my might the right to dignity and truth for the thousands of men who, although not killed by their partners, have been reduced to human wrecks deprived of any presentability and honour, thrown into the most devastating misery and instability imaginable by the very woman to whom they had entrusted (given) their lives without asking for any guarantee. How many men have had everything taken away from them, but above all their lives as fathers? The courts are full of fathers ‘orphaned of their children’ (I know something about it). Living with the ghost of a living child is a daily death that cannot be described, but I have never seen men in red shoes or women condemned for having reduced their unfortunate ex-partner to a non-life. And this for the simple fact that, even under secular law, motherhood is a given while fatherhood is a privilege. I think I’m going to have a hard time finding a gallery owner willing to host and show these works… If you know one, suggest it to me.
“Yeah, I like Billie Eilish. I can see why she is successful and why people are into it.” – Blixa Bargeld.
I did not approach my interview with Einstürzende Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld expecting to find common ground when it came to the subject of Billie Eilish, nor that she would even come up. The former Bad Seed guitarist, industrial music (and Patreon) pioneer, and straight-faced straight-talking German didn’t seem like the type who’d go for that kind of thing, but there you go.
Last year, in the midst of a pandemic, Neubauten released their 12th studio album, the brilliant and eerily listenable Alles in Allem (All in All), the band’s first since 2014’s ‘Lament’. Around that time, Blixa and his family left their home in Berlin and upped ‘temporary’ sticks to Portugal, as ‘Corona-refugees’, as he puts it.
In another lengthy exclusive interview for Felten Ink , Blixa discussed his current life in the Algarve, cooking with a live online audience, his innovative methods of creating new material with Neubauten, his long-time relationship with crowdfunding, and his fears about more traditional forms of writing and working in general. The small matter of Blixa’s time with, and indeed departure from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds was another topic I couldn’t resist but broach.
The current worldly situation with regards to tiresome viruses has obviously been hard on performing artists (no touring etc) but has it had any positives for you, in terms of being able to create new music?
Create music? With what? With the swimming pool?
(This is from a guy who started his career making music with drills and concrete – but my courage to point out, so early in this interview, deserted me)
Yes, but surely you have some means of musical instruments to work with?
I rented a piano. So I have a grand piano standing in the main room and I have my microphone with me for if there’s anything that just requires some vocal work. I do work remotely with my engineer in Berlin. There are technical means, which is complicated, but possible. And I think since I came in August [to Portugal], I think I’ve done three or four recordings for other artists who wanted my vocal services. Some of them require that I actually write, and some of them just want me to read some texts or sing some texts that they supply for various different projects around the world.
One person actually asked me to arrange the pieces of music to record things. But I have to tell them, “Look, I am in the Algarve, I have no instruments here, I have nothing… I can’t do anything like that.”
What about new writing projects… is there an autobiography in the works?
It’s not necessarily new. I had a contract with a German publisher about 10 years ago to write an autobiography and I skipped out of that a couple of years later because I simply didn’t do it. Since I have no real possibility to play music or to have any interaction with other musicians or other artists I decided, okay, what is a solitary activity that I can do? And I write but don’t necessarily write with a focus on one book or one output. I write in parallel, and I’ve been compiling all the lyrics that I have written since the last book of lyrics that I released. I’m compiling all the notes of my times between 1993 and now.
But it’s a pastime. I find the process of writing, as in literal literature, in writing and sitting down, kind of frightening. It’s not really a place that I want to go to. It’s because I know the last time I had writing a book, it took me a long time to get into it, and then once I was in there, I was so involved in it that it wasn’t necessarily much fun to be around me. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily a place I want to go to.
It’s like, ‘I don’t know where this is leading me, I don’t even know what to do with this’. I don’t know if I have much more interest in actually releasing something on an international level than rather just having a German publisher. If you release something in German, it rarely gets translated into other languages, simply, that’s how the literature world is built, it’s very Anglo-Americancentric. So, I’d rather have an international publisher, and see that there is a German edition of it too, rather than having a German publisher that has absolutely no experience in exporting their products. So, I might end up doing the whole thing myself.
I was very surprised to find you on social media and you broadcasting online. I don’t know why – as it does make sense given you’ve been a pioneer in terms of things like crowdfunding, Patreon, etc.
Oh, yeah, I know, but my wife is running all that for me. I have never seen my Facebook page. She’s the one filming me, she’s also the one taking care that it gets out there. She was, you know, an internet pioneer of the first hour. She invented crowdfunding. It wasn’t called crowdfunding back then. We just called it a supporter model, but she did all that. Obviously, she’s good with these things.
Like, when was that, the late 90’s or 2000s – with Napster, when the whole digital world suddenly shook people up from their sleep. At that point, I think in 2001, we did our last record for which we had a recording contract; a classical, old-style recording contract. And after that, no record company, even for an established band, would offer you the same conditions any longer. It was all uncertain and we thought, “Well, how do we do this kind of, like, a supporter model.” You know? You start working and we film, we offer something that the porn industry offered already on the internet, fake intimacy. As for a ‘paid model’, we were all very skeptical about that, but once we had the first 500 people signing up, we realised, “Hey, this is actually working”.
Back then, I think, if you’d say the word ‘streaming’, nobody would know what you were talking about. So, we did web shows and everything and we didn’t do streaming back then. We had USB cables running, so soon you’d end up with a wrong cable running over the courtyard because there was no internet in the backyard where our studio was. And that’s the first thing we did with all this money that came in from the people, we actually bought equipment to build a studio.
We bought a mixing desk from German television and we brought microphones, stands, we bought all these essential things that we didn’t have before because Neubauten was very much a band that never spent any of their money on anything. We built a studio, we made a ton of records and we did Patreon. Patreon was enormously happy that we were working with them because we were the biggest selling musical act on the whole platform. So, obviously what we did back then had and does have a resonance to people nowadays, and people (laughs) in, in this, like, confinement situation, even more so.
Do you think that in, say, 10 years or so time, there’ll almost be a lack of need for a record company or a studio? Everybody now is doing it themselves…
I can very much live without a record company and I could actually very much live without making a record but, I can’t really live without playing. I can’t really live without playing live. I miss that more than being able to go to a studio. But certainly of these three elements: concerts, studio, record company, I can without the last one. Studios, I mean, the way technology has influenced the output of music is obvious. The general format nowadays is a duo that sits in front of two computers, because that’s accessible to everybody. I don’t try to value that, but it’s just accessible and possible to everybody.
You have your music program in that, you work with a computer, you produce electronic music and when you’re finished you send it out and it’s gonna be a record or it’s gonna be on Bandcamp or you actually press CDs or vinyl with it. But that’s not a way that I like to work. For me, it is necessary to work with a band in one room, playing instruments that are mainly acoustic or electroacoustic, even singing automatically makes it necessary to have a room.
Indeed. So no matter what evolves in the future, the need for a group, a band setting, together, will always be a necessity…
I remember when I first worked with Alva Noto who is of course a big, big number in electronics and electronic music. It was almost a shock for him to realise that once you have a singer, you actually need a room, that you actually need to have a microphone, that you have to have a recording studio, and that you can just sit on a headphone with a microphone and sing into a computer. That’s not working for me and for the whole process of composing for me, it is necessary to work with a band. The band is my tool to compose. I don’t come with a fixed thing, I come with ideas and I am unable to sing them to their final stage without the input of other people.
That’s usually in the way we play together, I’d rather feel like I’m directing a play than being responsible for the whole music… I direct something.
Am I right in thinking you don’t put in too much preparation before entering a studio?
Since I bought my first laptop in late ’93, I made it a habit and a duty to write something everyday. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I write lyrics for songs. I write or I collect ideas, I make notes. So, I do come [to the studio] with something and I always have particular things that interested me in that I would like to try out.
And this will have been the case with the latest album, ‘Alles in Allem’?
With ‘Alles in Allem’ – the whole album is very, very dear to my heart. I have, with that album, deeper satisfaction with anything else I’ve done before. And I think that goes for everybody in the band. It just feels really like we’ve done the most uncompromising, beautiful thing that we haven’t done for a very long time.
Tell me about your card system, a way of working with Neubauten?
Yeah, we have this one way that we like to work with which is called Dave. It’s a card system that I devised that is specific to Neubauten, specific to the people in Neubauten and it’s specific to our instruments and strategies. And usually, there are no rules, but we usually play it like everybody’s taking a couple of cards and he keeps them for himself and trying to make sense out of them, you know? Then everybody is building their station, mise en scene so to speak, and then we play and we’re all completely surprised by what everybody else is doing.
There was one particular afternoon that we webcast where we drew the cards and started playing. And it took a very unfortunate direction, the direction was very much into, you know, ‘Music for Airports’ kind of ambiance.And I said, “This is ridiculous, we can’t make a three and a half minute seven-inch single ambient piece!”
That’s just contrary to the whole idea of ambient, you know, a double album, a whole CD. But what do you want? These three and a half minutes of wobbling, nice sounds? It justifies itself in, in a different format, but not in a three and a half for a single. So, I couldn’t sleep. I went home and I was really embarrassed and angry about that. So, the next morning, when I went to the studio, there was only Alex and I said, “Look, uh, I thought about this. We can’t – I, with your permission, I will try something else of that.” And then I sat down and played ‘Alles in Allem’.
‘Alles in Allem’ was the one song I heard which really stood out for me, quite profound. And I’ve read you saying it took some madness to compete?
Yeah, that took madness to write that (laughs).
So how did you set about getting it to a place where you wanted it to be?
I kept the key. I didn’t wanna go completely rogue, sort of overboard. I thought maybe this can work as an intro. As I said, I wasn’t sleeping, I was kind of, like, hypersensitive and I really came with an idea, and when I recorded, it suddenly, it was necessary for the sound engineer to readjust my headphones. So, I went out into the courtyard, outside of the studio because of my mental state. Pictures were breaking in on me, basically.
I looked at the wall and I looked at the floor and the pictures just threw in and I stood there, writing, and I think I had it within 15 minutes. In that time I had written about 10 verses, just from the floor and the wall and what I’d seen. And then I went back in and just sorted them out and I left in the six best ones and that’s it… that’s why you have in the video also they show the floor, because that’s the lyrics. Yeah, it took a certain amount of madness to actually write that.
One thing I was really interested in about your approach in the studio is the restrictions that you place upon yourself (we’ve touched on the card system approach) – not rules as you say, but parameters to help the process?
If everything is possible, then you don’t get very far… or at least you don’t get very far quickly. I remember a very good example was, ‘Die Befindlichkeit des Landes’, a wonderful song, a great song that we rehearsed before we actually recorded. But in the rehearsal, Alex said, “No sixteenths..”.
I don’t know why he said it, but no sixteenths. You know, whenever you sing, you, now you go, ‘da, da, da, da, no, no sixteenths’. Okay, so we kept the no sixteenths rule, and it’s a rule. But that rule actually got us through and to a point much quicker than if we would have allowed everything to happen that is possible. I don’t think I’m telling any news here, other people have found out that before me.
But I think I have a general rule for anything connected with creativity. It’s that you first make up rules, then you follow these rules, and at some point, you break rules. You make some rules and you’re gonna be quicker. Even if you break them at some point, it doesn’t matter, you’re gonna be quicker.
There’s a funny story that I can tell you from working with Teho [Teardo]. Teho, as a film music composer, he had lunch with Ennio Morricone. And he [Morricone] told him, “You know, you know what the trick is? The chord follows. The cadence basically, doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. It’s the arranger. So, you just give a chord following and they arrange it.” And that’s great, I like that. You just make up whatever stupid chord following. If you go, “that, that’s an odd one”, and then you give it to an arranger who has to make sense out of it.
Because a chord following itself is… everybody thinks that’s where the idea is, the idea is not in that. The idea is in what you make out of it. So, if I say, “Look, we write something in C-sharp, it’s gonna go C-sharp, D-sharp, F, F, G, C-sharp,”… anything goes, and then you give that to an arranger, you give it to other people and say, “This is it,” and, uh, then they put their teeth into it and suddenly you find out, “oh, yeah, something can be done with that stupid cadenza I just wrote”.
I’ve heard you say in the past that art has to come from when you have to do something.
No, that’s not me, that’s Arnold Schoenberg who said that. Arnold Schoenberg said it in German. It’s translatable: art doesn’t come from ability, art comes from necessity. You don’t do it because you can, you do it because you have to.
And has there been any period in your life when you went without ‘having to do something’? Perhaps when you felt you couldn’t or maybe it wasn’t right?
Oh, yeah, I did not do a record since, well, since we did ‘Lament’ in 2014. Of course, the rest of the band kept asking me if we should continue working and do something else, and I didn’t feel like it. At the time I didn’t know if I had another record in me, I didn’t know if I wanted to do another record. In all the time we were playing, we were playing greatest hits, we were playing ‘Lament’, we were playing shows, but I didn’t feel like it. So that, it came to me one morning, in jet lag, coming back from Hong Kong and being in Berlin in bed and I just realised, I have to make another record, and I started making another record. Every now and then, I feel very much that I don’t have to do anything.
Did you feel the need for a break as such?
I don’t call it taking a break. I can’t really work if I don’t have the feeling that I have to. And not because of money, no. If I have to, it’s because there’s something that I need to do.
Back to the latest record. I love ‘Ten Grand Goldie’, the video’s very funny. Your daughter makes a great cameo…
Oh, in the video? Yeah, that’s my daughter.
Does she have any opinion on your music or give you feedback?
Yes, there are some things that she likes better than other things. She loves ‘Nargony Karabach’ and there are some other things that she likes, but she is like everybody that age, more into Billie Eilish than she is Neubauten.
I like Billie Eilish…
Yeah, I like Billie Eilish too. I can see why she is successful and why people are into it. And it’s extremely well made and extremely well produced.
My wife has been playing the last Taylor Swift album nonstop to the point where I think I know most of the lyrics and it’s driving me absolutely crazy.
Oh, my daughter can sing them all too. That’s fine. I would prefer her if she would do that, but unfortunately, she sings also a lot of really stupid songs that are really annoying. I remember that I asked my daughter, five or six years ago, on one particular song that I was writing for Teho, I asked her, “So, what should I do?” And she said, “A tiger is approaching.”
Well put.You’ve said, and it seems, that on the latest album you dropped your defenses a little bit, ‘becoming non-hermetic?
Well, yeah, it’s a bit of a strategy in writing, and in terms of the, ‘to rather be cryptic and hermetic’,I just kind of realised that I’m untouchable anyway, so… I am in a position where it really doesn’t matter anymore.
Does that come with age or just experience?
It comes with age, with age and resonance. People in my profession, a lot of 62-year-old working musicians would rather behave like they’re 30.
I’m also keen to know more about ‘Google Monster’.
Oh, in the first lockdown, I did a lot of private shows for the supporters and to one of them, I explained my technique called ‘Google monster’ which is basically Google-supported writing. So, I would write, in that case, what I explained is, that I describe a creature, head to toe, with very generic, open sentences. And then I Google using these, um, roots. And, and outcome like, four, five solutions and then I end up with… five different monsters that from head to two are very well described. But that would be just making Google monsters.
Werner Herzog once said that he was convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking. Do you agree? I love the fact that you’re a long-time active chef and actually do ‘shows’ for your website subscribers?
Erm, no. I think I came up with the idea of a synchronised cook, because that’s the difference to a normal cooking show. In 2002, we had one event for the supporters where we cooked together, the band and all the supporters. We made a recipe from The River Café in London which is a vegetarian pasta with tomato ginger sauce, which contains enormous amounts of ginger. But really delicious, really good. Neubauten have all worked in the kitchen and some of the supporters did the same thing and then we ate like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper style on a long thing with the cameras in front of us so that they can eat with us.
I cook something in real-time including the cutting and the whole preparation, and whoever wants to do it with me can do it with me. And, yeah, some people do. So, then I make a caldo verde, the basic national dish of Portugal, basically kale and potato soup. I do it in real-time and in the end, we can eat the soup together. And then of course the other element is whatever else I talk about, because I have the iPad in front of me, I see the comments, I see the questions and I play music at the same time.
I’ll try and join next time.
Yeah, well, you have to join my website. It’s cheap, it’s only 10 euros, so (laughs).
I am a fully paid-up member now!
Do you have any beliefs in vegetarianism, a diet that you seem to still follow but gave up when living in China?
I’m mostly vegetarian, yep. But I eat fish. But, no, people would ask, “Why are you vegetarian?” and I’d reply “Because I hate animals.” But I had no ethical background in that. I basically became vegetarian because I didn’t want to eat with my parents anymore. But it’s not that easy to go back. When I was living in China I started eating meat again because I didn’t want to deprive my wife of all the wonders of Chinese cooking. Chinese don’t eat in a way that you say, ‘okay, I order this and you order that’. You order for the whole table and then you all eat together. So, surprisingly, especially living in Beijing, it was surprisingly difficult sometimes getting things that are really vegetarian, things that are made without soup stock or made without ham, or things like that. So, well, I ate Chinese while I was in China but my body didn’t like it. So, I scrapped it again. I had developed some kind of nephritis that was gone once I stopped eating meat again.
The last time I saw you on film was a documentary, you were sitting in a car with Nick Cave. Did you like the result of 20,000 Days On Earth?
I never saw that film. There are about, like, three films that I appear in every year and I never watch them.
I’m a huge admirer of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and came to know you through your time in that band. How do you look back on the experience in the group?
Oh, it’s a very long ago part of my life, but the strange thing is that since I came here, I systematically went through all my daily notes – 68 volumes of notes. And I played with Nick Cave for 20 or so years and knew him before but I played with him for 20 years and so The Bad Seeds appears surprisingly little in all these notes. It almost seems to me like I was still leading a parallel life, one when I was playing with The Bad Seeds and the other one. But it was a big part of my life, that’s for sure. I’m sure it has left its scars and its traces.
And you leaving the band was unfortunate, but I suppose you had your reasons?
When I joined The Bad Seeds, I was 23 and I left the year after I got married. I had no personal difficulties with anyone in the band and artistically, I would say it was becoming more and more important to me. But I had the very clear feeling that I would be unable to balance The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten and my marriage. There are a lot of rock star wives, they’re always the unnecessary fifth wheel in the band bus. I was in London recording ‘Nocturama’ and my wife was in an apartment that we rented in London, but she had nothing to do and I knew thatI wouldn’t be able to balance two tours, and records a year, together with my marriage.
I was very, very unhappy with the management. After the death of that so-called manager, everybody realised that he was ripping us off, for years. Now, I can say so. But, you know, back then, I didn’t give any, explanation, I just said, “I can’t balance these things…” which is true, the management thing was very, very unsatisfactory. In the end, they found money everywhere hidden in his office, in plastic bags, so I was not paranoid, he was ripping us off.
Do you still keep in touch with Nick or anyone else in the band (living, obviously)?
Nick contacts me. Well, I’m meant to get a parcel today of records from Australia which I’m meant to sign and then they’re gonna get picked up by DHL again, they’re gonna be auctioned for supporting The Bad Seeds crew. But, I am still… we didn’t leave on bad terms. I didn’t leave on bad terms, it’s all fine. I still think it was the right decision for me because.. it would have been really bad for my marriage mainly. And giving up Neubauten was not an option for me.
Blixa Bargeld, thank you.
Interview by Henry Jackson.
If you want to join Blixa’s official ‘cook’, you can sign up via his website
The Specials emerged from an era of British music like few others; one that combined the influences of both homegrown political dissidence and Jamaican dance-house music. In the late 1970s, The Specials produced the first and finest combination of multi-racial (and also collaborative) music that the UK had ever seen, inventing the term ‘Two Tone’ in the process. Many since then have tried to hold the cue, but few have managed to do so or execute with such originality. I do doff my hat to those who have tried. In terms of being related to the quality of ‘ska’ music The Specials dealt (and continue to deal) in, I can only raise the name of the Fat White Family, a band who seldom sound in the same genre, but do very much carry the energy, wave of originality, popular tunes, humour, and indeed political messages of The Specials. The common political message can be left up to the reader to decide.
Horace Panter was in the Specials and played Bass in their original and current line up. These days, he’s very eager to get The Specials back touring (COVID forgiving) and also spends his time working with his own Pop-Art, adapting to being a ‘technophobe’, whilst also on the verge of being a grandfather. Felten Ink caught up with Mr Panter to discuss such matters.
Horace, what is the difference between being a ‘musician’ and an ‘artist’?
Being a musician gives instant feedback. If you’re doing good, an audience applauds or your bandmates acknowledge you. If you’re doing bad, you know about it pretty quickly too. There is a lot of adrenaline involved! With painting, the satisfaction and contentment is something internal. I guess, to use a pop psychology word, it’s ‘mindful’. The validation from an audience comes more slowly but it is there. I get a kick every time someone buys one of my paintings.
To me your own artwork looks like it would come under the term ‘pop art’?
Yes, I’d say I follow the Pop tradition. I take everyday objects and paint them, elevating the mundane. Andy Warhol had his soup cans, I have my cassettes, Japanese Vending Machines, American diners. I don’t mind people putting structure around my work – it doesn’t affect how or what I paint.
Do you look at everyday things and feel the need to make something?
I look at all genres of art (which is why I miss being able to go to galleries/exhibitions). Everything inspires me: it could be a colour or a shape or an object that suddenly takes on a specific meaning that I think could be transferred to a painting. A fellow artist once said to me ‘lots of people can draw/paint to a level that is extraordinarily but, as an artist, you have to have an idea’. I’d say it’s far harder to have an idea than it is to be technically brilliant. I don’t want to follow trends in art though I’m aware of them. I guess my strongest influences come from Pop Art, given that I was a child of the 60s when everything ‘cool’ came from across the pond: pop music, art, fashion. I love Peter Blake’s work but he was also influenced by American Pop culture.
What has being a musician taught you (if anything) about your own exploration into making your own art – to me your artwork doesn’t seem too personal?
As a musician, I’m a team player. I need a drummer and other musicians to create my music; it’s collaborative. I always refer to my art as ‘my solo album’. The work stands or falls on its own merit and by my own efforts. I have done a few pieces of ‘personal’ art but I keep them for myself!
I would love you to share some… I’ll keep it a secret, I promise. When is the best time for you to work, create, and why?
I prefer to paint in the daylight (natural light) which has been difficult with the short winter days. After walking the dog I spend most of the day in the studio but I do go out to see my printer or framer a couple of times a week. I try to take a break at weekends but if I’m on a roll, that often goes out of the window. The painting itself dictates how I work I guess.
It seems to me there are perhaps few other modern bands continuing the work of The Specials. Do they exist?
Where are the new Specials? I think various aspects of The Specials are observable in a lot of British music – the reggae/ska influence, the dance style, but nothing has come that close. Jerry (Dammers) once said he thought that Galliano were like The Specials. There are, of course, bands that, lyrically, resemble the band, but I think our USP was the message and the dance. Our message was serious but our music was uplifting.
I once read you saying nice things about Sleaford Mods (not my bag, to be honest). Personally, I think Fat White Family are one of the greatest bands currently on earth who at least share the attitude of a band like The Specials. What else is are you into musically?
I’m not familiar with Fat White Family – I’ll look them up – but Terry thinks highly of them. I thought the Sleaford Mods were mesmeric performers and it was great to have them on tour with us. I don’t listen to too many new acts (where do you find them these days if you don’t have Spotify… I don’t because I’m a bit of a technophobe!). I think my vast knowledge of rock’n’roll is something of a millstone around my neck. Everything I hear seems to sound like something else – spot the influence if you will. I have tickets to see The Drive By Truckers in June in London, re-scheduled from last year… I hope they play. Bands send me stuff on social media and, now and again, I prick up my ears and listen to a song all the way through. These days I’m quite impatient, if it sounds generic in the first few bars, I’m gone. I’m not cynical, maybe just have too many tunes in my head already!
I first got into the Specials in the days of indie dance floors back in my late teens/ early 20s (a long time ago now). Why do you think The Specials continue to be so important for newer generations?
Well, firstly: The tunes are great. The lyrics are easy to sing and are still relevant. The rhythms are irresistible. The live shows are full on – 100% full tilt celebration. Got your ticket for the 2021 gig yet?
Not yet, but… How has this ongoing lockdown treated you and have you been able to develop or at least maintain yourself as an artist, i.e. your own artwork and with the band?
All the Specials’ work for 2020 was rescheduled for 2021. Then, even our 2021 tour was put back from March/April to September/October. Between the lockdowns I did three small gigs, two with a Cajun/Zydeco outfit and one with a Blues band. They were all great and made me realise how dependent I am on performing as a release. During this current lockdown I’m one miserable mother-fucker. There’s only so much you can practice playing the bass! Art-wise, I’ve never been busier. There are new projects and new opportunities, making it an exciting time. Counter-intuitively, people have still been buying art, which is great for me. I’ve managed to paint a whole new series of cassettes which will be exhibited in the next couple of months. Obviously, the exhibition will be virtual which takes some of the fun out of it as it’s nice to build up to a physical exhibition and to meet people at the opening. Nothing is as usual though is it? I stay home, walk my dog in the countryside twice a day and do everything I can to stay sane!
What has this current situation given you that normal life would have restricted?
We (my wife and I) moved house a week before the first lockdown, from Coventry to a small village in Warwickshire. Love it. We have spent our time since then exploring the area, finding remote places to walk the dog (border terrier called Mijj!), had builders in, who have been great company… builders always are aren’t they! As well as concentrating on painting, I’ve had lots of time to read and think. Our son and daughter-in-law moved from South London to Warwick just before Christmas. It is a huge frustration that we can only see them in a socially-distanced situation, so no long boozy dinners together! I miss playing Blues/Cajun/Zydeco in pubs. Socialising in general. Visiting museums and art galleries. I was planning a road to trip to visit friends in the USA so god knows when that will be possible!
I don’t want to spend too much time on COVID but as it’s affecting everyone – what are your own thoughts on how the UK is dealing with it? Will we get back to normal (I tend to think aside from pubs and gigs, normality was overrated)?
I don’t think there was a single country in the world that was prepared for the virus (except perhaps Taiwan). We had to make it up as we went along didn’t we. There were always going to be conflicting interpretations of scientific data and weighing up the economic consequences. I don’t think we’ve felt those consequences fully yet. The performing arts industry has been decimated. The current debacle about musicians/performers needing permits to perform in Europe is a farce that needs to be fixed. Maybe bands like The Specials can take that on the chin, given they have a management structure capable of sorting all that out. It is young bands and musicians (including choirs, small opera companies, etc) that will feel it as they often go out on a shoestring budget and they won’t be able to absorb the extra costs. I’m just hoping to play in pubs again!
I’m now in my mid-30s and feel it – does one chill out more as they get older – You’re 67 now so what does age do to you?
Haha! It makes me jealous of anyone who is 30 years younger! Stuart Copeland once said to me “musicians stay younger longer” – I hold to that thought constantly!!Less angry, sure. More chilled, sure. Without the mist of anger I have been able to think more deeply about things like politics… I’m less reactive and more contemplative. I look for context in everything, despite the fact that context is often obscured. I see that MSM and social media are designed to make me angry so I back off. I’m going to be a grandfather this year and that gives me a deep sense of joy. The personal stuff, family, friends, etc., is the important stuff.
In terms of your artwork, I love your cassette art in particular – how do you choose who to stick on there. I was thinking you should do a mixtape version and link to a playlist on Spotify… with the help of the one they call ‘Alexa’?
With the cassettes there are self-imposed boundaries. Circa 1970 – Circa 1995 are the boundaries. Having said that, more bands are recording and releasing cassettes as they have achieved a kind of iconic status. All the cassettes are the same dimensions. The interesting bits are small, overlooked factors like the screws (do they have screws?), or the window. Are there numbers folded into the front place under the window? (what use were these anyway?). These small factors inform how the cassette looks. Yes, I only do bands I like. No way would I do an Abba cassette – or Queen! Don’t even mention Queen! Having said that, my new series doesn’t feature bands/songs; it celebrates the object alone and I’ve concentrated on design/colour. The idea of Alexa scares me shitless!
I agree with you on ABBA, God forbid Alexa decided to play me that. Are you ever bored with making music?
Never! Music is such a wonderful thing to be able to perform. I can’t possibly imagine my life without it. Now and again I get fed up with a painting I’m doing so I’ll put it aside or scrap it. I never get fed up playing music!
Are you cynical about older bands getting back together to tour or make new music? I don’t wish to be crude, but making money is important – thoughts?
Well, at my age, I ain’t in it for the travel and I do have a family to support. I would by lying to you if I said that the money didn’t matter. You might be surprised that I still have a mortgage and I don’t have a pension plan, or even a new (or old) BMW! I have never been close to being a millionaire, more’s the pity haha! My accountant says that in a good year I make about the same as the average builder. The Specials is a big band with a large crew, the cost of doing a tour is eye-watering. Regardless, I love it! Being with Terry (Hall) and Lynval (Golding) and the gang is like being with family… we have decades of history!
Interview with Horace Panter – January 2021. To be continued…
There there, there’s no getting away from it. There was no hope in hell that an interview with Stanley Donwood would be concluded without mentioning Radiohead, the band whose music he’s so brilliantly illustrated since 1994’s ‘The Bends’. Since then he’s created some of the most iconic, dystopian, beautiful yet apocalyptic visions the graphic art world has witnessed, and all to inch-perfectly fit that band’s own sound, a collaboration that continues to evolve to this day.
That being the case, my interview with the visual artist did manage to cover other topics such as drugs, ageing, planetary destruction, and his own books of design and visuals which he seeks to ‘be understood by every human being on the planet’.
I understand you like a glass of white wine, hopefully you’re having one now.
Stanley, speaking as someone who is a raging receder, when did you go bald and did you worry about it at all?
I went completely bald overnight when I was 23. I have not a single hair upon my person. I didn’t worry about it at the time and I don’t worry about it now. I think hair is stupid. And yes, I’ll have a glass of Picpoul, thank you.
In our first email exchange you mentioned you would be away in terms of being offline – do you need to be away from such things as the internet in order to work, focus, etc?
I suppose that putting a ‘vacation response’ on your email account is a modern equivalent of pinning a not to the door – ‘back after lunch’ or whatever. Being attached to the internet in its various forms has recently become very normal and seems mostly to be a positive thing; although it must be said that the effect of the internet on our public and private lives has yet to manifest itself entirely. It may be that it turns out to be inimicable to liberal democracy. Wouldn’t that be funny?
Pass. And for you?
I don’t need to be away from anything to work, or to focus (not that I’m sure I ever really do) or for anything really. Sometimes I go to places that don’t necessarily have easy access to electricity, so of course, things like the internet are much more difficult to use. Like most people I usually have a phone, but the battery runs down, and so that’s it. When I’m in places with no electricity I don’t really work very much, unless it’s just drawing or something like that, partly because when there’s no electricity there are lots of things that need doing manually and partly because I like staring into space and doing nothing.
Can the ‘planet be saved’ or what about civilisation? I’ve always had a notion that this thinking is our need to correct ourselves…
I’m sure that the planet will be absolutely fine; it’s just that we have made some small alterations that will mean the future of our civilisation is untenable. It really isn’t a battle at all; not something we can win or lose. It’s just a tragedy. But regarding the survival of our civilisation – yes, I am quite pessimistic; although for many species, if they can survive the relatively short and undoubtedly messy period of our demise, this may turn out to be a net positive. If we manage to destroy much more than we already have (and we have done it in such a very short time) then it isn’t only humanity that will disappear, but much else besides. It seems such a waste; planets that sustain life are so rare, and we are fucking this one up just for short-term gain. Just for social status or money or transitory pleasure, or for convenience.
How do you feel about aging?
I don’t mind about my own aging… or perishing. Well, actually I quite like it. I have no desire to be young again. I detest the idea of eternal life as promoted by various religions, and more scientific methods of prolonging or preserving life such as cryogenics send a shiver along my spine. I very much hope that death is nothingness.
What does age do to you, apart from the obvious?
I’ve become less grumpy and cross the older I’ve become. I’m certainly happier now than I was in my 20s or 30s. I’ve become more fatalistic but also more accepting of the futility of existence.
Age often comes with changes in approach, which brings me to drugs. I understand you had a liking for magic mushrooms – when did you stop and why?
I used to be very interested in drugs and how they change your perceptions and emotions, how they can affect your mood and your senses. I haven’t tried everything by any means – new things seem to be conjured into existence all the time – and although I’ve had some unpleasant experiences I don’t think I’ve been damaged by any of them. And – I haven’t stopped taking magic mushrooms; for me they’re very much a seasonal thing, and I’m a picker-and-eater, so I have to wait until late autumn and for when the weather is right, so lots of rain, but not too recently, a good drying wind, and I have to go somewhere where they grow. I moved to the south coast of England recently and I can’t find them anywhere. It’s not for want of looking. I think the soil is too alkaline or something. As for my other favourite, which is/was hash, I gave up smoking a couple of years ago which has completely screwed that up. I’m very familiar with the traditional tobacco/hash joint or spliff or whatever you want to call it, but without tobacco it’s very hard to judge what’s going to happen. I think maybe I’ve just got bored with it. I went through a while when I was very enthusiastic about MDMA but that seems to have faded too. I think I’m just getting old. I’m definitely buying more expensive wine these days.
Are they beneficial to your kind of work?
I’m not at all sure if drugs are an aid or a hindrance to creativity. On the whole I think probably they are a kind of benefit, but you also tend to come out with some dreadful bilge.
I’ve heard it said that being an artist isn’t so much an occupation, it’s more of an existence…
Well yeah, I guess so. It certainly is for me. I get kind of jealous of people with actual jobs sometimes – not proper envious, but just a bit. I would quite like to be able to go home and switch off. Or go on holiday and switch off. Or be able to meditate, or anything really. Just a break would be nice. But hey ho. I guess I should count my blessings.
You’ve written that ‘Everything you’ve done has been a disaster’ – don’t you think that’s a bit extreme…
A bit extreme! Yes, it is. I just exaggerate for dramatic effect, darling.
Can I ask about your recent illustration book ‘Bad Island’ – firstly I’m inclined to think it was partly inspired by Britain…
No, it’s not anything to do with the UK. The title came along a while after I’d started cutting the pictures from linoleum. An island is in many ways a microcosm, and I guess I was thinking of our planet and how it’s a very lonely, very tiny island in an unimaginably huge ocean of nothing. And islands are intrinsically intriguing, fascinating places; an island can be a kind of Petri dish where uniqueness can flourish. Or it can be a terrible prison. There’ve been loads of islands in literary history; Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, The Lord of the Flies, Web, The Island of Doctor Moreau and so on. It was partly inspired by Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, but mainly I wanted to make a book which could have been made at any time in the past or any time in the future and be understood by every human being on the planet.
And you’ve recently collaborated with writer and lecturer Robert McFarlane on ‘Ness’, what does he bring to your own work?
I’m hoping his standing in the literary establishment and the fact he teaches at Cambridge will confer a small amount of respectability on my sorry person.
Now onto … Radiohead… how did you first become involved with them?
I was trying to earn a living by hitch-hiking around the country and doing fire-breathing on street corners, and on one occasion my act was meant to be the support for a band called On A Friday who were performing in the upstairs room of a pub in Oxford called the Jericho Tavern. The band secured management that very night and a record deal shortly afterwards. I had been prevented from doing my act by the landlord who cited fire regulations, an act of callous sabotage my fire-breathing career never recovered from. Fortunately, the band renamed themselves ‘Radiohead’ and phoned me up, asking if I was any good at doing record covers. I didn’t know, but I thought I could give it a go.
I consider your work on ‘Hail to the Thief’ as a true masterpiece, enough so that I have hung on my walls. What’s your personal favourite work you’ve created for them?
That’s a hard one. I think maybe ‘In Rainbows’. Or ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, perhaps. Neither of those ended up even remotely as I’d intended, which for me’s a good thing. I did like ‘Hail To The Thief’ too though.
What is the process like between the band working on an album, coming to you with the concept and you producing your final work – do they give you a brief?
No, there’s no brief or concept. Usually I started pretty much when they did, so quite early, when they’re rehearsing and making songs and trying out ideas. I’ve worked in the studio, or quite close to it. For ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ I was working in a kind of barn that was across a courtyard from the recording studio, and we had a wire running across and some big speakers installed in the barn. That was a great painting studio. It was in Provence and it was fucking brilliant. Beautiful countryside and lots of white wine. Sometimes Thom has some visual ideas that he’s tried to convince me of but then again, sometimes I have ideas too. Usually, we try to utilise our initial ideas, but they haven’t ever really worked. I suppose they’re a useful place to start. I frequently begin with a hollow sense of yawning emptiness and fear that I’ve run out of steam and my paltry abilities will be exposed to the harsh light of reality. It’s quite horrible.
Strange because your art seems to always fit perfectly with the feel or sound of what the band release…
Well, that’s always good to hear. I do try. It’s probably because I’m immersed in the music throughout.
Have they ever rejected or been unhappy with something you’ve produced?
There was an instance when I wanted to make giant topiary cocks out of chicken wire and astroturf for the record that became Hail to The Thief, but usually, things have been pretty chill. You can read about this, as well as various other indignities in a book I made called There will Be No Quiet. Thames & Hudson, twenty-five quid. A bargain, that’s only 50p for each year of my life.
Obviously, you listen to Radiohead, night and day. Are there any other artists you think ‘yeah, I’d do a good job of creating their artwork’?
I hardly ever listen to Radiohead normally. I think I overdo it while making the artwork. Well, I definitely overdo it. I kind of wish I’d done a cover for David Bowie. A lot of his later record covers were a little questionable. But then, maybe mine are, you know. It’s all extremely subjective.
What is your own favourite creation?
My favorite thing out of everything might be Hell Lane or February Holloway. And in 2007 I made a series of photographic etchings I was very happy with. Oh yeah, and I made a load of drawings for an as-yet unrealised project called Modernland. I used some of them on Thom’s record that was called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. They were very serious, quite threatening pictures that were meant to be documents from a destroyed world. Messages from the future.
Are you dark by nature?
I’m a pussycat. Ask anyone.
Who do you steal from the most?
I’ve really done that less the older I’ve got. I used to nick off anyone, but I think particularly Robert Rauschenberg. ‘OK Computer’ was directly inspired by his work. And I tried to steal from Gerhard Richter although that was a disaster; not only was I incapable of painting like him I was also useless with oil paint. It was a humiliation, and well-deserved. But lately, not really anyone. I’m very, very into 19th-century Russian landscape painters, but my own skills are negligible so it’s just a romantic dream to be able to steal from them. It’s not actually possible.
Are you still involved in the nuclear abolishment movement?
I’m involved still, I guess; if you consider making films about nuclear weapons to be ‘involved’. But I’m not a member of CND or anything like that. Along with many people my awareness of matters atomic had been kind of off the boil in recent years, but when I got asked to art direct the film ‘the bomb’ by Eric Schlosser and Smriti Keshari my deep fear came flooding back. There is no question that nuclear weapons are a truly terrible idea for a species as aggressive and idiotic as our own. It’s not if with these fucking things, it’s when. We should absolutely do everything we can to get rid of them.
What’s been your own experience of Lockdown?
Well, I’ve got quite fit because I’ve taken up long-distance running. It’s quite slow running and the idea is that if you can’t talk and laugh while doing it you’re going too fast. Also, I’ve been swimming a lot because I moved to the coast. Most of my paid work was cancelled or delayed or postponed so there are vast holes in my financial universe. I started a new project called The Lost Domain to try to refill the holes and also to give some work to people I know, and to raise some cash for charities, as they’ve been really hit by the consequences of the virus. So I’m working much more locally, and also quite a lot less. Essentially there are good things as well as bad that have come out of it, as far as I’m concerned. But of course, peoples’ experiences differ wildly.
Tell me about your next projects?
I don’t have anything to promote really. I’m a bit tired of working and tomorrow I’m going to go away to a place with no electricity. But eventually, I will have to return to the modern world and immerse myself once more in the tepid bathwater of earning a living. To which end I’ve been working on some new screen prints. It’s taken ages because, basically, of the pandemic. During the lockdown, me and my partners in the screen printing business started turning the studio into a self-contained printing workshop, which took much longer than we’d anticipated. So now, about six months later we are pretty much ready to go, and we’ve been working on some of the pictures from Bad Island; photographing the actual inked linocuts themselves, rather than the prints taken from them. So we’ll be able to show all the cut marks and so on. They should be ready in September. I’ve also been painting, although quite why, or what for I don’t really know. I guess I want to show them in a gallery, but I can’t think how at the moment.
What’s the latest with the Thomas Hardy stuff?
Yes, I’m working on a load of pictures to illustrate the poetry of Thomas Hardy, lately of Dorchester, England. He’s been dead for a long while, so he can’t object to my interpretation of his oeuvre. The edition will be published by the Folio Society, so it’ll be well fancy.
There’s something you cant talk about, it’s ‘utterly secret’. Obviously, this is a new project with the greatest talent in the world – with Dear Thom Yorke – please tell me something…
I cannot tell you anything. I myself have deliberately forgotten about it until after I’ve had a bit of a holiday.