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Leos Carax: “Films become alive when you spill your doubts and fears into them”

Leos Carax

Annette is a Leos Carax-directed musical, written and composed by the legendary Sparks brothers, involving a Bill Hicks-like comedian’s love affair with an acclaimed and much-loved opera singer. And it also has a baby puppet at its arc… Still with me? John Waters recently described this as his movie of the year, acclaiming that you need to see it for yourself so that ‘no one you know can possibly ruin this nutcase masterpiece’. These terms go hand in glove when it comes to talking about either Leo Carax (Holy Motors admirers will abide) or the music of Ron and Russell Mael. Both Carax and the Sparks were awarded for Annette at this years’ Cannes Film Festival, winning Best Director in what was an extremely competitive year (Please watch Titane after this). In a lengthy Q+A with the writer-director, Carax went into great detail about the making of his English language debut feature, what it was like to collaborate and work with the likes of Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard (as well as the importance of a baby puppet), and the relationship between one’s artistry and decency. There was also room for discussion on pet monkeys.

 

 

 

When did you first encounter the music of Sparks?

 

When I was 13 or 14, a few years after I discovered Bowie. The first album of theirs I got (stole, actually) was ‘Propaganda.’ And then, ‘Indiscreet.’ Those are still two of my favorite pop albums today. But later, for years, I wasn’t really aware of what Sparks was doing, because by the age of 16, I started to focus on cinema.

 

And when and how did you meet Ron and Russell Mael and tell me about how you all became involved in ‘Annette’?

 

A year or two after my previous film, Holy Motors, came out. There’s a scene in which Denis Lavant plays a song from ‘Indiscreet’ in his car: ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ So they knew I liked their work, and contacted me about a musical project. A fantasy about Ingmar Bergman, trapped in Hollywood and unable to escape the city. But that wasn’t for me: I could never do something that is set in the past, and I wouldn’t make a film with a character called Ingmar Bergman. A few months later they sent me about 20 demos and the idea for Annette.

 

What has been your relationship to musical films? Is the idea of
making a musical something you’ve been thinking about for a long time?

 

Ever since I began making films. I had imagined my third film, Lovers on the Bridge, as a musical. The big problem, my big regret, is that I can’t compose music myself. And how do you choose, work with, a composer? That worried me. I didn’t watch many musicals when I was young. I remember seeing Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, around the same time I discovered Sparks. I eventually saw American, Russian, and Indian musicals later. And of course, Jacques Demy’s films. Musicals give cinema another dimension —almost literally: you have time, space, and music. And they bring an amazing freedom. You can direct a scene by following the music’s lead, or by going against the music. You can mix all sorts of contradictory emotions, in a way that is impossible in films where people don’t sing or dance. You can be grotesque and profound at the same time. And silence, silence becomes something new: not just silence in contrast with spoken words and the sounds of the world, but a deeper one.

Sparks

Ron and Russell Mael

 

Was Annette always meant to take on a sort of rock opera musical form?

 

There was always the operatic, some rock but not much, and Sparks’ unique mix. I have always been struck by how you take formal and experimental risks, but you’re also not afraid to make visual gags with these very physical actors. Annette is about two performers. 

 

How did you conceive of how to show their performance domains?

 

I first wondered: why is she an opera singer, why is he a stand-up comedian? Sparks’ world is pop fantasy, with multilayered irony. But I had to take it all seriously at first. And I knew nothing about opera, and just a little about stand-up comedy. I quickly became very interested. These two forms, so far apart, do share a few things. The nakedness, vulnerability, of opera singers and comedians on stage. The game with death: opera is basically women dying on stage, in every possible way, while singing their most beautiful, poignant song, called the aria; and great comedians, like Andy Kaufman, are the ones who flirt with death on stage. Grotesque is essential to comedy, while serious opera avoids it, but is often mocked as grotesque anyway. And singing and laughing are both very organic: they rely on a complex anatomic system, the same vital system for how we breathe. I started to see the whole film as a metaphor for breathing: life and death of course, and laughing, singing, giving birth, holding your breath, … Also, breathing as a musical rhythm. In the prologue, we can hear your voice asking the audience to stay focused and to hold their breath!

 

Which now takes on a new meaning, since Annette came out during COVID, when
you’re not supposed to breathe too much in the company of others. Life and death, again.
Backstage musicals, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the films of Vincente Minelli
and Busby Berkeley, sometimes make profound comments about the essence of
performance and connecting to the audience. Was that on your mind when you were
making Annette?

 

When Sparks gave me their first songs and a treatment, I had one big concern: the guy was a stand-up comedian, but there was no sense of what his act was like. I had seen some stand-up in France, as a kid and later. And through my parents, I’ve always loved Tom Lehrer. He was a math teacher who started doing stand-up in the 1950s, singing and playing piano. His songs are very tongue in cheek — a little like Sparks’ actually. In my first film, I had stolen this line from him: “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” And I used a bit of one of his songs in Annette — bu this time with his permission.

I also knew Lenny Bruce’s and Andy Kaufman’s work. I started reading biographies about them and others —Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, … Some comedians vomit out of panic before their act. To enter the stage knowing that you have to make people laugh… Must be terrifying. Like if I were forced to go on stage at Cannes… and to go naked. So there was a dual theme: opera, the woman who dies on stage, with music and grace; and stand-up, which involves grotesque —and provocation, to the point where it can become self-destructive, as you can see if you watch any great comedian perform. The story of Annette is so archetypal and contemporary at the same time.

 

Do you remember your first emotional response to the story when Sparks presented it to you?

 

I loved the songs right away. I felt fortunate, and grateful. But at first I told them I couldn’t do the film. I had personal worries. I have a young daughter —she was 9 at the time. And although the brothers knew nothing of my life (I think), there were some things in the
storyline that could upset her. And did I really want to —could I— make a film about such a “bad father,” at this time in my life? But as I was listening to the songs over and over again, she started to love them too and asked me what they were. I told her and realized she already understood a lot; and that by the time the film would get made (if it ever did), she would understand how a film project comes to life. So I said “Yes.”

 

At the time, did you have to find strategies to make the film your own, so you could make
it?

 

Music is so intimate. I couldn’t see myself doing a musical if I didn’t feel for every note in every song. I was worried about that, especially since we were trying to have the whole film in songs. Musicals usually have 10 or 20 songs — with often half of them boring. But we had to create 40 songs: 40 songs I could see, then film. And how do you work with music when you’re not yourself a musician? But the process with Sparks was miraculously simple: they’re very inventive and humble and fast, with that unique sense of melody and rhythm, melancholy and joy. And I’d known their music for so long; it felt like going back to my childhood house decades later — but a house with no ghosts. There’s a risk, when you have so many songs, however great they are, that the film will become a cloying cake. Or a jukebox playing too loud too long. Which would have killed the experience. So you have to be very careful with the total score, the same way you have to be with the totality of your film when you edit a sequence. It’s a matter of finding the film’s natural breath. Another concern was: how to create Henry? A Henry I could relate to. And what true father-daughter relationship could I imagine, in this context of “exploitation?”

 

Can you talk a bit about the opening sequence, with the ‘So May We Start’ song? Is it
meant to be an introduction to the film?

 

Not really to the film, more to the film’s specific form. It owes a lot to Sondheim’s great ‘Invocation And Instructions To The Audience.’ And also, to the tradition of the opera prologue, especially the beautiful one from Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle.’ As with the first scene of Holy Motors, you’re in it. Yes, and again with my daughter. I had imagined it for me, her, and our dogs (but we couldn’t bring the dogs to LA.) For Holy Motors, it was important to be there with her at the very beginning of the film. Probably to reassure myself, after all these years of not making films, that we were just doing a small experimental home movie. In my mind, these last two films are experimental films. Annette is a big one; Holy Motors was a small one. I think of them as “films I have made since becoming a father.” It’s interesting to compare both films: Holy Motors was so experimental, and you’re right Annette is as well, but it has much more of a traditional story arc. Much more than any of my other films I would say. That comes from Sparks. They came with this dark fairytale, which I think respected. 

 

And with Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue of course brings things towards a ‘musical’

 

Toward the end of Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue sings a song that mentions having a child… Losing a child, actually. It was the first time I wrote lyrics for a film. Neil Hannon, from The Divine Comedy, wrote the song’s music. A very good experience, and a step closer to making a musical. I had always worried about what would happen if I asked someone to write music, and then didn’t like it. But we got to a song I liked a lot, and filming Kylie was beautiful. So it gave me confidence.

 

Did you have the desire to make a film in America (or in the English language) before this?

 

To make a film in English, for sure. English was my native language. But no, shooting in America was never a strong desire. About 20 years ago, I had a project called Scars, a tale set in Russia and America —New York, and on the road to the West Coast. And in the 1990s, an adaptation of Peter Ibbetson, set in France and America. In those years, after Lovers on the Bridge, it was impossible for me to make films in France. So I considered making films in the US. It seemed possible, or less impossible. Annette also started as an American project, with producers in L.A. I kept getting emails from them, with the word “hyperexcited” written all over them — but nothing was really happening. So I brought the project back to Europe.

 

Can you talk about shooting in L.A?

 

The film was imagined for L.A. The Mael brothers live there, were born there. In all these years of pre-production, I was asked again and again to move the film out of L.A, because shooting there is so expensive. I tried to imagine other cities but they didn’t work as well. I wanted Henry to travel on his motorbike like a cowboy, between his world and Ann’s world, and that wouldn’t have worked in New York, Paris or Toronto. So we had to reinvent LA, mostly in Belgium and Germany (which are not very Californian countries.) A fantasy version of a fantasy city. We only shot in LA for a week: the prologue, the motorbike shots, the forest amid the canyons and hills.

 

Annette is a return to the boy-meets-girl theme of your past films. There are shades of Alex
[Denis Lavant’s characters in the first three features] and Pierre [Guillaume Depardieu in
Pola X] in Henry. They meet someone that they have this intense spiritual attraction to,
but because they can’t live up to their own high expectations of either the relationship
or themselves, they submit to this death drive of destroying themselves and the
relationship. Do you see a connection between those male characters?

 

I see a connection between the actors: Denis, Guillaume, Adam. First of all, they’re interesting people, and not all actors are. I had only seen Adam in the TV series Girls, and I thought, like Prince Myshkin when he sees Nastasya Filippovna for the first time: “What an extraordinary face.” And also, an extraordinary body. He reminded me a little of Denis, although Denis is short —my size— and has a face people call strange. Adam is tall, with a beautiful face that some people would also call strange. Guillaume and Adam share a similar physicality: they’re strong, feline, very handsome young men, with something both feminine and masculine.

In Henry’s performances, he talks a lot about laughter, but it’s not a joyful laughter that’s in the film. He uses very personal aspects of his life as fodder to make people laugh, and then later on he uses laughter as a menacing weapon against his wife. Laughter becomes a question of life and death. We needed to invent two very different shows that would fit into the narrative. That was a big challenge, hard work. I forgot how many versions we tried, all very different. And since at first we wanted everything to be sung, it meant writing the entire shows into lyrics —and it had to be funny in a way no other comedian has ever been funny. I couldn’t find a way to do that. Then one day I thought: maybe Henry doesn’t always have to sing; he could go from singing to talking to mime. I felt liberated. I was consulting an American friend, Lauren Sedovsky, on the project. She knows a lot, about everything: art, literature, philosophy, … She told me about this old mime play by Paul Margueritte, called ‘Pierrot assassin de sa femme’, in which Pierrot searches for the best way to kill his wife, and finally decides to tickle her to death. It was the perfect inspiration for our laughter, breath and death theme.

 

Did Adam Driver have any input into Henry’s monologues on stage?

 

Not in terms of writing but in terms of acting, very much so. I usually don’t rehearse, ever, I hate it. But I did rehearse the two shows with him, each one for a day, at the beginning of the shoot. To reassure Adam. And myself, too. We knew each other so little. I also needed to check the rhythm of these two long sequences, and how Henry should move on stage. How he would play with his mike, etc. And Adam proposed many things. So the shows were really a collaborative creation between Sparks, Adam and I.

 

Tell me how you came to work with Marion Cotillard?

 

Marion Cotillard

I first met with American actresses (Ann was supposed to be an American). But I couldn’t find Ann. Then I thought of singers who could maybe act, but still couldn’t find her. I was getting worried: apart from money and reputation, the other main reason I have made so few films is what people call “casting”. I see casting as a totally unnatural and absurd practice. And each time I had imagined a project without an actor and actress in mind, I had to abandon it — could never find the right actors. So I felt doomed. What would happen if I never found Ann? Could I, for the first time, force myself to work with an actress I didn’t really want to film? A few years before we finally shot Annette, I met with Marion. Without much hope since, for some reason, I thought we wouldn’t get along. So I was surprised to actually like her very much, and believe in her for Ann. But there was, of course, a problem: Marion was pregnant so couldn’t shoot when we were supposed to. But the film kept getting delayed anyway because, as always, financing and production were a mess: I had to change producers three times, etc. So two years later, I offered the part to Marion again, and Adam and I were very glad when she said “Yes.”

 

You said that you don’t like rehearsing with your actors. I was wondering if you do any of
the traditional things when you direct them? How do you know when it’s right?

 

These questions are always hard for me to answer. Cinema is something I’ve done so sporadically, just a few films in 40 years, and when I’m not in the action, I tend to completely forget how it’s done, or how I do it. I can’t see myself doing it. But I think it always involves an obscure mix of extreme precision and extreme chaos. Directing has a lot to do with choreography, all the more so for a film like Annette. Although it’s a musical without any dancing, the music and singing force everything to move differently. And if you do it right, bodies, cars, trees appear to be dancing. Working with actors is, again, all about precision and chaos. Marion is at ease with both, but more on the precision side. Adam, at different times, needs one more than the other. So for some scenes, he would feel lost, get mad. I was asking for too much precision, or leaving him in too deep a chaos. Those scenes are of course the ones in which he delivers his most inventive and inspired work. Maybe we’re a bit the same in this way. I loved filming Adam. I shoot many takes. Less now than I used to — since I’ve turned to digital, I don’t watch dailies anymore, so I don’t feel the need to retake every shot like I used to. Sometimes, you want another take because you’re looking for something specific. But more often, it’s the opposite: you need to get lost, to reach a point that is, to me, like a déjà vu illusion: where it seems like you’re in the middle of a dream… or that you have seen or dreamt this before… “I’ve been here before,” but I never knew it.

 

In Annette, the songs replace regular, naturalistic dialogue. You get used to characters
singing to each other. How did you decide for the songs to take on a very casual
conversational quality and how did you communicate that to the actors?

 

The first decision was to have the actors sing live. An evident choice for me, but not easy for the people involved —sound people, camera people, money people, and the actors of course. It implies not going for the performance. Singing becomes more natural, like breathing. It’s something that’s quite moving to do, and to watch. It was easier for Adam than for Marion I think. Marion always felt her voice could be better; Adam didn’t have this concern so much. Once we started shooting, he was an actor, not a singer. I like how both of them sing in the film, each in a very personal way.

 

I remember you saying that a lot of films start as a single image for you. Was there one
for Annette that triggered the rest of the film?

 

Since it was not my original project but Sparks’, Annette really started with the music, their music. The vertigo of music. And although I didn’t write any of it obviously, I often felt more like a composer than a filmmaker. Which I guess has sometimes been the case on my other projects anyway. I didn’t have any actors in mind, and especially had no idea how to show a baby, from age zero to six… a baby who could sing… The film seemed impossible to make. But I’m used to that, and every film should be impossible to make. The first image that came to me was more of a feeling or an intuition: a tiny star, alone and lost in the dark infinite — the smallness of Annette in the face of the world. And then I thought of Masha, a little Ukrainian girl. Years ago, I had lived with her young mother and her, in Ukraine. She was two years old then, and a wonderful child. At times, she almost looked like an old lady; but she was beautiful, in a very particular way that moved me. Masha would be the inspiration for Annette.

 

You once mentioned that animation wasn’t really your wheelhouse. Do you still feel that
way?

 

Yes. I can enjoy it for a few minutes. If my daughter really insists, I watch a Miyazaki with her for example, but I’m not interested in it. I like real movement. And my love for cinema starts with: a person looking at another person. A man filming a woman of his choice, a
woman filming a man of her choice. I like filming nature, cities, a gun, engines, fireworks and explosions, … But I need above all a face, a human body. Skin, eyes — and the emotions reflected in them. Annette herself is at first this puppet figure.

 

How did you come to that decision?

 

Like most decisions, by first saying “No, no, no” too many things. “No” to a digital baby; “No” to 3D imagery. By personal taste or distaste, and because of what they call “the uncanny valley.” Which would’ve been even uncannier in the case of a small child. And because if you do it digitally, it’s all post-production, which is anti-emotional. I couldn’t see myself shooting the film without Annette among us on the set, by herself or in the arms of the actors. Then I said “No” to using robotics or animatronics: Annette had to be someone, something I could understand, not a computer. Something simple, hand-crafted. So I thought of a puppet. I knew nothing about puppetry — but at least, hopefully, someone could create an emotional puppet.

 

A concept suggesting that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human
beings provoke uncanny feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers
It’s a big risk that you took.

 

An exciting one. But did I have a choice? And, maybe for the first time, I had to really think of a future audience: were people going to accept a film in which a puppet suddenly appears, and nobody ever mentions she’s a puppet? A film in which none of the other characters, played by real people, ever see her as a puppet (except Henry, maybe). But the film is a musical, and I don’t make naturalistic films anyway, so the reality of the film was already out of this world. I imagined the scene in which Ann gives birth to Annette as a way to introduce the baby puppet to the audience. In the world of the film, she’s a real baby, but we can see right away that she’s not a baby of flesh and blood.

 

With the Showbiz News bits, does the film try to get at the notion of celebrity and how it
can be such a destructive force?

 

That has more to do with the roman-photo aspect of the film’s first part. The couple is “rich and famous.” I find it very difficult to film rich people. Again, this irony problem. The two films of mine that do portray rich people, Pola X and Annette, are the only ones based on
stories I didn’t imagine myself. Sadly, I am not Douglas Sirk, and the times have changed since the 50s, when the rich & famous could still be seen as substitutes for vain and vulnerable gods in a Greek tragedy. But success is very interesting —I also used the theme in Pola X. Whether one wants it or not, and then achieves it or not, and then whether success is personally successful: whether it makes you grow or shrink. I had decided that Henry would come from a poor and violent childhood, while Ann would come from a boring but safe childhood. There’s also the fact that opera is seen as high, refined, art; whereas stand-up is considered a popular or even vulgar art. So there’s almost a class war there. Of course, like in many love stories, this discrepancy is one of the reasons they fall in love in the first place — the press calls them “Beauty and the Bastard”. But then, Henry becomes like these guys who see a stripper in a club, fall in love with her, marry her, and then beat her up because she’s a stripper.

 

I was struck by one of the lines in Henry’s performance: “Comedy is the only way to tell
the truth without getting killed.”
 

 

Oscar Wilde said something like that. But we all have to go through this. We all have to find our way of telling the truth without getting killed. I mean the truth about ourselves.

 

And what about the motif of monkeys in the film?

 

When I was small, my father had a female chimpanzee, Zouzou. She was very jealous. He kept her in the bathroom next to the parents’ bedroom, on a long chain, and at night she would jump on the bed and attack my mother. A few years later, I had two monkeys of my own, Saï and Miri, small ones with long tails. It was a very sad, very morbid experience. They got sick, dehydrated. I put them in a small drawer in my desk with some cotton, and each time I opened the drawer I would see them trembling. We finally had to euthanize them. Monkeys represent both dangerous wildness and martyrdom. I love them.


How did monkeys get into Annette? 

 

I think it was the result, as it often is, of a few coincidences. I was looking for a title for Henry’s show, and remembered that some ancient theologist had called Satan “Le singe de Dieu.” So I called the show, “The Ape of God,” which sounds like a wrestler’s ring name. Then the puppeteers suggested that baby Annette could have her own toy, a teddy bear, and I liked the image of a puppet puppeteering another, smaller creature. But I chose a monkey, not a bear. And then I saw that one of the young puppeteers had created, for one of her own shows, a big Kink Kong puppet, and I absolutely wanted to use it in some way in the film. So gradually, monkeys invaded the film, and became a link between father and daughter, savagery and childhood.

 

The scene with the six women coming forward feels like a dream sequence, removed
from the reality of the film. Ann is in the back of the car, falling asleep…

 

I had a hard time imagining Henry’s fall from grace. In the original treatment, he just became less successful over time. But I wanted it to be sudden. So I started imagining things that could go very wrong with one of his shows. It had happened to a few real-life comedians. Michael Richards became famous with the sitcom Seinfeld, but one night, as he was doing his stand-up show, he suddenly went into a wild racist rant, and then had to retire from stand-up. Dieudonné was a very successful French stand-up comedian, politicized on the left, who for some reason moved to the far right, and whose anti-Semitic provocations kind of killed his career. And Bill Cosby ended up being convicted and imprisoned for raping women. But these cases, involving violence, sex or racism, were too real for our film; they would make Henry too obvious a villain, too early in the film. So I thought: first, he won’t do anything terrible, he’ll fantasize about something terrible, and people will hate him for
that —because comedy’s truth does have its limits. And then Ann too should fantasize about something terrible, in relation to him. He has visions of her, dying again and again on stage, and plays with the idea of killing her. And she dreams of him being accused of having abused women.

 

Were you thinking of bad male behavior and how it’s connected or not connected to
artistic output in the creation of Henry’s character?

 

Yes, but it’s something I’ve always thought about. Bad men, bad fathers, and those male artists who were terrible people but inspired me so much. Starting, when I was young, with the great French novelist Céline, who became mostly known for his anti-Semitic lampoons during the Nazi occupation of France.

 

Do you think it’s too much to expect from artists to also be good people?

 

Not too much, but it’s not the right expectation. There are of course great artists who seem to have been beautiful human beings, like Beckett, or Bram van Velde. As far as we know, they suffered, but didn’t make others suffer. And their beauty imbues their work. But I’m not sure there are many such artists. Was Chaplin a good person? Or Patricia Highsmith, whom I like a lot? The two most gifted comedians of our time, in my mind, are Dieudonné and Louis C.K. One is a fascist lunatic, and the other apparently forced women to watch him masturbate. Annette only turns into a real girl in the end, when she’s totally alone. That’s the Pinocchio side of the film —and the reason why I added that last scene in prison.
And it’s often the truth: it’s when kids get rid of the adults that truth comes out. That’s what I experienced. And that’s why I changed my name when I was 13. I don’t want my daughter to ever push me away, but that’s how it happens. Annette appears and says to her father: “Yes, I have changed, and it’s over. Now you have no one to love.”

 

That’s a very shocking scene because she’s this innocent little girl, and although she’s
been through a lot, you don’t expect that she has necessarily processed all of it. And yet,
she’s so determined to break her bond with her father who is her last relative. That must
have been very difficult to write and to shoot.

 

Very. But films with certainties are not interesting. Films become alive when you spill your doubts and fears into them. When you confront what seems impossible, unimaginable to you. Like your daughter turning against you. I wanted to ask about this motif of the orphan, which you’ve talked about before. This sort of childhood wish fulfillment: a dream of waking up in a world where you’re all by yourself, a sort of scary but also totally freeing dream, which you have compared to the experience of being in a film theater. Annette literally becomes an orphan at the end. I feel very close to her. It’s like in The Night of the Hunter, but she has no big brother and no Lillian Gish to protect her. She’s really left all alone with that man-father. Cinema is for the orphan in us. I remember the experience, when I first came to Paris, of discovering films, alone in the dark, especially silent films. It had these same elements of freedom and dread.

 


I heard you were alone when you were quite young. 

 

Fassbinder once said “I was left alone to grow like a flower,” because was also raised without much oversight from his parents. I think it’s a blessing, for certain children, to be left alone when there is too much chaos around. They benefit from tragedy, family tragedies, by being left alone. The chaos allows them to invent or reinvent themselves.

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Horace Panter: “Our message was serious but our music was uplifting”

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…

www.horacepanterart.com

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Abdel Bendaher: “I tend to observe a lot and am careful to not be noticed”

Samir Guesmi’s directorial feature debut is described as being a ‘rites of passage’ in which a father and son will slowly grow to know and understand each other when ‘botched robbery’ and the need to satisfy older friends offer no end of conflict. Newcomer Abdel Bendaher plays Ibrahim, a youth hell-bent on finding himself and others at the same time. Here, Abdel Bendaher answers some questions about the role itself, working with director Samir Guesmi and finding his own feet in when dipping his toes into the world of filmmaking. 

 

Abdel, How did you end up being a part of this project? 

 

It was a bit of an eventful Sunday for me and my friends: we went to watch a friend – totally outclassed by older players – play a football match. At half time we dropped our ball near the spot where Samir Guesmi was. I felt he was staring at me. With his motorcycle helmet in hand and big as he is, we thought he was a cop! He introduced himself, and explained he was a director and actor. We didn’t believe him. He had to show us his Wikipedia page with a photo before we took him seriously. Then he asked if he could film us. Weeks went by and Christel Baras, the casting director, contacted me. I did a test with her first, then more casting sessions. I gave myself completely each time, because I felt the pressure mounting and I wanted to believe in this. When I found out I’d got the part I was really happy! 

 

What was your relationship with cinema before this experience?

 

 I only went to the cinema to watch American blockbusters. But with my best friend we often fantasied about making a film about our friendship and the bullshit we used to come up with together. Now I’ve started to watch French cult films, I’m opening myself up to cinema and it fascinates me. 

 

Do you remember your reaction when you read the script of IBRAHIM 

I remember feeling it was really alive. I was immersed and I believed in everything I was reading. I quickly identified with Ibrahim, who is a high school student like me. He’s shy and reserved too. It was easy to project myself into this role. I liked the friendship between Ibrahim and Achilles as I much as his relationship with his father and the connection he develops with Louisa.

 

What did you tell yourself about Ibrahim? The truth? 

 

Nothing! I told myself I was going to play Ibrahim as I am. I understood that’s why I had been chosen, that I should stay as close to who I am in life to play the role of Ibrahim. I just thought he was an unlucky boy, not a victim. He wants to do things right and avoid problems, but his mate Achilles involves him in his bullshit and exerts a big influence on him. I also think he and his father love each other very much, but don’t dare tell each other. Ibrahim is a very observant character… Like me! I tend to observe a lot and am careful to not be noticed. I’m a champion at looking away if someone I’m looking at turns his head towards me. So I had no trouble finding the right attitude for Ibrahim, and Samir helped me a lot too. He guided my gaze, sometimes even during scenes. 

 

How did Samir direct you, in other respects? 

 

He told me to not act, to be natural. The fact that he himself is an actor helped me. During the first weeks we shot the scenes in Ibrahim’s and his father’s apartment. They were complicated scenes, because their relationship is complicated. The first days, Samir didn’t want to talk to me. He had warned me that the beginning of the shoot would be tough, and he piled the pressure on me. That’s how I felt about it anyhow, and it did help me to find the right emotions for the film. At first I concentrated on my character; I was in my corner and repeated the lines to myself, I was hunched up, like Ibrahim. I quickly felt I was the character. Bit by bit I understood this was Samir’s strategy, but I didn’t hold it against him. All the more so since at the end of the first week he came to talk to me and explained why he had talked to me so little at first. Little by little I started to feel more at ease with everyone. 

 

Did you manage to forget the camera?

 

Only after several days. I got used to it gradually. I also had to get used to the crew, I was a bit overwhelmed by all these people around me. What helped me was being invited to participate in the location scouting. I got to know some technicians and quickly felt accepted. But on set, I was intimidated. It was really intense, and I felt there was no room for mistakes. I didn’t know that films were made like that. I thought you shot in front of a green screen with dialogues written on cards! Those first days were crazy – hallucinated the first few days: no comparison! 

 

How did you find your character physically? Did the wardrobe help… the chapka hat for example?

 

Yes, even if at the beginning I thought that the shoes I had to wear were lousy! These must have dated from the time of Louis XVI, these trainers! I swear to God! I wore a chapka hat, a coat, had a green bag… At first when we shot the scenes at the high school, with kids around us who hadn’t necessarily understood we were shooting a film, I was a little ashamed in these ugly clothes! But it allowed me to feel like Ibrahim. The chapka hat physically defines his character. He wears it all the time, he’s attached to it. When Ibrahim takes it off the people who look at him feel they are discovering a new face. 

 

Did you see Samir’s short film, C’EST DIMANCHE! before the shoot? 

 

This short film helped me. It doesn’t describe the same father-son relationship but it gave me clues. 

 

How did you work with the other actors? 

 

They were all older than me and had experience on films. They acted like big brothers and sisters to me. They helped me a lot and made me feel at ease, by rehearsing my lines with me between takes, for example. 

 

Were you able to leave this role easily? How did you emerge from this first film experience? 

 

When I went back to school after filming, I was shyer than before, as if Ibrahim had rubbed off on me. But that changed quickly, particularly when I was back with my friends. It’s funny, because at the beginning, I was in a hurry for this shoot to be over with. But at the end, I was sad and wanted to start again as soon as possible. I really want to carry on acting. I know how lucky I was to have met Samir. I’ve always loved the idea of trusting my destiny. Samir arrived at the right time: I had bad grades in third grade, I wasn’t sure which way to head. This film has changed everything for me. I’m like a new person, in a way, thanks to this film. It is also the first step towards the professional world. When I finished the shoot, I was a bit proud of myself, without having become big-headed. Just proud to have taken on a challenge and to have been able to play a part in a beautiful film.

With thanks to the lovely people at Wild Bunch. 

 

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Deji Ijishakan: “I felt like I had to act like Zarathustra in a sense… just go to war with ideas”

Deji Ijishakan is a 21-year-old jazz musician from south London, his primary instrument being the tenor saxophone. Over a relatively short time he’s developed an eclectic and unique musical personality, infusing his passion for philosophy into his music, and forging an entirely new subgenre he calls jazz-drill. He plays in a number of jazz and fusion bands including Levitation Orchestra, Nihilism and Hypernova Militia. Over the lockdown he’s started releasing his own solo work under the name Xvngo. Ashwin Tharoor sat down with Deji to talk about his music, philosophical influences and new projects.

 

Deji, Xvngo [Shango] is your stage name, right? Where did that come from?

 

It actually originates from a Yoruba god, an Orisha in the Yoruba tradition. They have their own their pantheon and like, Shango was the god of thunder, fire and willpower. I was inspired by that.

 

How was your lockdown?

 

It’s been really up and down you know. I’ve had some really high moments, like for instance I just started releasing my music under the alias Xvngo, as a solo artist. I also finished my degree, got into the Masters I wanted to do and started a business. At the same time, in other areas it’s been quite negative. I know someone quite dear to me who’s been affected by coronavirus. I’d definitely say it’s been more positive than it has been negative.

 

That’s good to hear.

 

I think it’s good to go through some difficult times, because it makes you stronger, psychologically.

 

So, when did you start playing music?

 

I’ll never forget my earliest memory engaging with music, I think I must’ve been like 8 or 7 years old. It was on a laptop, not a music programming laptop or anything like that. There was this programme on there, for a game or something. I remember there being a wizard involved. I remember playing on a keyboard that allowed you to play [music] with the keyboard of the laptop. Testing sounds and being like, oh wow, what is this!

 

Did you have any big musical influences in your family or at home?

 

Funnily enough, one of my uncles is a saxophone player. And my dad forced me to play the keyboard when I was quite young, and at first, I was against it. Even though I must’ve shown him some type of musical inclination. But yeah, he wanted me to play and I was rebellious at first but then I really got into it and began to love it. So, my dad was a big musical influence, and then growing up throughout secondary school I was very much involved in music.

 

What about your first musical love, in terms of an artist or a band?

 

The first really profound musical love I had was for John Coltrane. I’d say when I learnt about Charlie Parker, I was like, wow, this is amazing. I was about 13 years old, so I was quite lucky to be introduced to bebop music. The way that I got into bebop is quite funny. I’d been playing the piano up until I was 13, and I used to go to this mentorship. And, at the time I listened to a lot of hip-hop music and my mentor looked at all the music I was listening to and he was just cussing me out for like an hour, and he was telling me I need to stop listening to this stuff.

 

What was he cussing you out for?

 

Like, he has quite a conservative taste in music, listens to Ben Webster and that type of thing. He said like anything after the 1980s is almost sacrilegious music (laughs), you know what I mean? But yeah, he was cussing me out for listening to like MGK, Giggs, Waka Flocka Flame, even Jamie Fox.

 

Sounds like he didn’t like hip-hop at all.

 

Yeah, he was very anti-hip-hop. And then after that, out of fear, I started listening to some jazz music. And I was like, you know, I really like this. Once I’d been introduced to it in that way I really began to fall in love with it. Then I started playing the clarinet. But when I found Charlie Parker as a result of this awakening, this jazz awakening, it really blew my mind. I couldn’t believe someone could make a sound like that, like a human being. I really couldn’t even comprehend. Now that I play bebop, and I can take the lines and I can play it, it’s kinda different. But when you’re standing completely beholden to it…

 

With no conception of how it’s made…

 

Yeah, it’s just so sublime. And then time went on, I kept on listening to jazz, and I found John Coltrane. It was beyond sublimity with Coltrane, because you could just see a man on a journey with music. And, he’s just leaving everything else behind, he doesn’t care about anything. He’s almost channelling – like he’s a vessel for his own unconscious mind. All the potential things in his brain, that he could release, to do with music. Like he’s trying to exhaust his whole potential musically. Which is such a beautiful thing to see.

 

I really like the way you put it. So, which jazz musicians do you really like on the scene today?

 

Well I’d say in terms of modern guys, I’d say like Joe Armon-Jones. I love his music; I play with him as well. Moses Boyd as well, really good music, KOKOROKO, Wonky Logic just put out some music. There’s hella people, Ezra [Collective]. And then you got other people like Levitation Orchestra, PYJÆN. I really like Empirical, another modern UK jazz band. There’s a lot of heads lying about doing some sick stuff, taking all different angles towards the music.

 

So as far as I know, you’re in four bands? Hypernova Militia, Levitation Orchestra, Nihilism and KOKOROKO? Is that last one correct?

 

Yeah, I’m not a member of KOKOROKO, but I play with them. I’m in the KOKOROKO family, but I wouldn’t call myself a member. But the other three yeah, I play in all of them.

 

Are they all active at the moment?

 

Hypernova’s active, Levitation Orchestra’s got some music coming out, Nihilism we’re gonna be getting in the studio to record an album.

 

Nice! I’ve seen Hypernova and Levitation Orchestra live and they were both amazing, but how would you differentiate the styles of the bands that you’re in?

 

With Hypernova, I’m the band leader, and the whole mission of Hypernova is one big philosophical, comical, abstract, absurdist, mess.

 

It’s off the rails.

 

The way that I approach that is gonna be way more primitive, and like almost letting your unconscious mind take control of the whole situation, whereas with Levitation Orchestra I’ll take a backseat. With Levitation Orchestra we’re all trying to write music together, so I’ll just try to contribute to the collective composition, as opposed to trying to drive it all. And with Nihilism as well it’s very collaborative, and a whole other sound world from Hypernova – which is typically bebop. The funny thing is we’re now putting the drill music with the bebop. On our EP there’s gonna be a drill track where we’re playing on it. First drill track with live horns.

 

That sounds sick, tell me more about jazz drill? And your new single Entropy?

 

Jazz-drill really started with me and Matt from Harris Westminster [our Sixth Form]. At university in first year, when I had my saxophone, I’d be hanging out with people but I’d also wanna practice and they’d be playing drill music and so I’d just play over the changes. And then, I was like, let me just keep doing this it’s good fun, it’s different. Now it’s become a thing of its own and I’m just trying to make as much of it as I can.

One thing I appreciate about being an artist and putting out music, is you can just superimpose anything you’re experiencing or anything you find interesting into the general story behind the music, the artwork, or the name of it. With Entropy, it’s a nod at this thing called the free energy principle. It’s a neuroscience theory that says your brain is an inference machine, so your brain is always trying to make predictions about reality. Once you have a system making all these predictions, it means that entropy will play a role in it. What entropy is, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, is that we’re constantly moving towards more disorder. We’re constantly moving into more micro-states than previously were. Now as a statistical machine, what does it mean for you to be moving into more micro-states, moving into more disorder? It when there’s a prediction error, it’s when the statistical machine predicts something but then is surprised when the information it gets doesn’t marry up with what it was supposed to get.

[Neuroscientist] Karl Friston has been using mathematical equations behind thermodynamics and entropy to apply it the brain, but there’s just so many implications behind it. There are even implications for psychedelic drug use. There’s this thing called the entropic brain hypothesis made by this dude called Robin Carhartt-Harris doing research at Imperial [College] about this right now. Saying how psychedelics increase the entropy of the brain, and that’s why it can help people with depression.

 

That’s really interesting. How did those ideas inform the music, if at all?

 

I don’t know if I could say that I consciously felt it informing it, but once I’d made the music, I feel like it represented that. And the music that I make is always in some way gonna be related to whatever I’m reading or whatever I’m thinking about.

 

Was there any particular inspiration for how you incorporate philosophy into your music?

 

I mean, Mr. Stone [from Harris Westminster] used to teach philosophy of music (laughs). But I can’t really think of any artists off the top of my head who used to incorporate philosophy directly into their music. I just felt like doing it, I just felt like it had to happen.

 

What do you want people to feel coming way from your gigs? Especially Hypernova, which I guess is the most…

 

Visceral!

 

Yeah!

 

I want them to feel confused, I want them to feel entertained, want them to feel like they may be learnt something. I want them to feel like they need to start questioning the way they view reality.

 

What else do you like to listen to, other than jazz?

 

I love classical music. I love Beethoven, Bach, Shostakovich, Vivaldi, I love Vivaldi. I love Stravinsky as well. Other than jazz music, I mainly listen to classical music. Listen to some dub, listen to some drill music. But I also listen to some indie rock stuff, I listen to whatever I’m feeling.

 

Yeah, nice! You gotta have a mix. What’s on the horizon for you, in terms of new music you’re making or releasing?

 

Hypernova records the EP this weekend, that’s gonna be released sometime before I die. (Laughs)

 

Fingers crossed.

 

In terms of my solo project I’ve always got music coming out. I’ve got another single coming out in the next three weeks. You can always rely on me to have a single coming out.

 

I know you’re an avid reader of philosophy, but when did that start?

 

When we were at Sixth Form, I was into philosophy but I never really read it properly. Mr Stone actually inspired me quite a lot. And from then on, I was very much into metaphysics, Plato, Kant as well. Having that philosophical viewpoint helped me when I got to university, but I think my real engagement with philosophy started when I started watching Rick and Morty. There was a period in my life, I think Year 13, when I used to believe a load of these crazy theories, like some batshit crazy theories. Then I remember watching Rick and Morty, and seeing Rick and seeing how much he only allowed what he believed to be dependent on logic, rationality, reason and science. That kind of broke down a lot of the way that I was perceiving things. From then on, I was introduced to Existentialism and Nihilism and started getting into Nietzsche. When I got to university, I was like I’m just gonna read as much as I can. I just devoted myself to it. I read Thus Spake Zarathustra and that changed my life.

 

How did it change your life?

 

For me, after I read that book, I felt as though anything that was some trouble or something that caused me pain, it felt more like a war. Like a righteous war. Because after reading Thus Spake Zarathustra, I felt like I had to act like Zarathustra in a sense, and like just go to war with ideas. That helped me ground myself philosophically and intellectually.

 

Since you’re the band leader of Hypernova Militia, how do you incorporate philosophy into the music live?

 

There are several ways that I do it. There are some commands that I do, I give the band commands. Some of them would be stupid shit like, ‘quantum spin’ and then everyone spins around or like ‘roid rage’ and then everyone plays this mad music. But then also I’d just randomly get on the mic and say some philosophical passages. Whenever I feel like it, within songs. I also say some political stuff like ‘free the market’ (laughs). But like, there’s philosophy always being drawn throughout the whole thing.

 

In terms of improvisation on the sax, is there a particular way you approach it? Feel free to get technical, or spiritual.

 

For me, playing the saxophone is so therapeutic. It allows me to escape into myself and let my unconscious mind just be expressed aesthetically, artistically. At first, whilst I was learning how to play the saxophone, there was various ways I would approach it technically. You know you have to learn your scales, gotta learn the harmony. But even the way that I approach harmony, I see the whole thing as one big game. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, or like a maths problem. Harmony, composing, improvisation as well.

 

When I play music with other people, I often feel a kind of metaphysical, mind-melding connection. How do you feel about that?

 

I get what you mean, there definitely is a metaphysical component to it. There’s the band right, but there’s the non-physical, non-temporal elements of the band, you know? Even if you killed every single member of Hypernova, as an idea it would still exist. Like, the meaning behind you guys playing together, and obviously the idiosyncrasies of the musicians themselves. Personally, when I play in a group setting it’s all about listening. Trying to produce something that’s conversational.

 

As someone who performed live so much are you itching to get back out there?

 

It has been a while, but one good thing about the whole lockdown is I could just focus on being in my room and studying and going on all these other intellectual journeys. So, I was able to explore that part of myself even more, and almost forget about performing. But then also, I really wanna perform. Human desires are really all muddled up.

 

How do you feel about the government’s response to the whole music industry?

 

(Laughs) I think they tried…We can’t spend an unfathomable amount of money on any project, any domestic policy, because it will cause problems for the economy in the future. And then people end up dying as a result of it, whether we like it or not. So, we have to be reasoned in what we do. I think they’ve given it a shot; they’ve tried. There’s always gonna be problems. We’re in unprecedented circumstances. I mean, I’m fundamentally a libertarian – stop the government from having too much power.

 

During lockdown you started a project with the slogan ‘Buy, Back, Build’, what was the name of it?

 

The name is Owó, and it means money or business in Yoruba.

 

What are your aims with this project?

 

So, we’re creating a black business directory app, so you can use the app to find your local black business, and you can also use it find venues and galleries and that type of thing. And, eventually, I’d also like to incorporate information on finance, and that type of thing. With that project, it was in response to the George Floyd death. For me, the reason why I made it was because I was like, I’m seeing people respond to this in a way I don’t think is gonna effect change in the long term.

 

What do you mean by that?

 

Just posting on social media this, posting on social media that, putting up black squares. There’s no long-term impact of this, this is all performative. People are like, I’m in solidarity, but people actually end up dying because of real economic problems. My whole approach, I don’t wanna be on the whole political thing, I’m more on the economic development approach to it. That’s why I decided to make the app. I think that many of the problems black people face in this country are class problems as opposed to race problems. And that’s an economic issue as opposed to a policy issue.

 

Do you not think they’re interconnected in a lot of ways? Policy and economics, but also class and race?

 

Policy and economics are definitely connected, but the reason why I favour an economic perspective on it is because policy is top-down, but economic development is bottom up. If you build a company, or you and your people build companies, then you can actually put money back into the community. You don’t have to wait for my man to change the law, so that he’ll give more money, you can actually do it yourself. I’m not a fan of top-down control, I’m not a fan of government getting involved in everything. So, I think the economic route is the most prudent thing to do.

 

Isn’t top down change necessary to provide the conditions in which black businesses can thrive?

 

Yeah, there do have to be some policy concessions, for instance allowing for small business owners to not have to pay ridiculous rates on licenses, and random regulations for starting businesses. Freeing up the market basically, but especially for small business owners. Yeah, we need policy change to happen, but if you take the economic route first, the policy won’t even matter to you.

 

Finally, what would you say to the thousands of young musicians coming up now, trying to do stuff and be original?

 

First thing I’d say is, listen to as much music as you can, so you can see what you’re naturally disposed towards and hone in on that. Another thing I’d say is, know that there’s gonna be times when you feel like you’re not perfect at your craft, but that’s the whole point of it. It’s the whole point of it. It’s a dialectical process, you know what I mean? You need to come up against the problems and then get through the other side. So, keep fighting the good fight, keep making that music, keep listening to music and just do your thing.

 

I think that’s about it. Thanks a lot for chatting with me.

 

My pleasure bro.

 

You can follow Deji on Instagram at @xvngo and his bands:

@hypernova.militia

@levitationspacebase

@nihilismband_official

Ashwin Tharoor is a 22-year-old graduate living in London with a passion for music, writing and visual media.

319 Views

Stanley Donwood: “I like staring into space and doing nothing”

Stan Donwwod

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 which 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 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 ageing?

 

I don’t mind about my own ageing… 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 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 mushroom; 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 wrote 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 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 favourite 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 which 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.

 

Whats 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.

 

Theres 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.

 

Stanley, Dan, thank you. 

 

 

295 Views

Leos Carax: “Films become alive when you spill your doubts and fears into them”

Leos Carax

Annette is a Leos Carax-directed musical, written and composed by the legendary Sparks brothers, involving a Bill Hicks-like comedian’s love affair with an acclaimed and much-loved opera singer. And it also has a baby puppet at its arc… Still with me? John Waters recently described this as his movie of the year, acclaiming that you need to see it for yourself so that ‘no one you know can possibly ruin this nutcase masterpiece’. These terms go hand in glove when it comes to talking about either Leo Carax (Holy Motors admirers will abide) or the music of Ron and Russell Mael. Both Carax and the Sparks were awarded for Annette at this years’ Cannes Film Festival, winning Best Director in what was an extremely competitive year (Please watch Titane after this). In a lengthy Q+A with the writer-director, Carax went into great detail about the making of his English language debut feature, what it was like to collaborate and work with the likes of Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard (as well as the importance of a baby puppet), and the relationship between one’s artistry and decency. There was also room for discussion on pet monkeys.

 

 

 

When did you first encounter the music of Sparks?

 

When I was 13 or 14, a few years after I discovered Bowie. The first album of theirs I got (stole, actually) was ‘Propaganda.’ And then, ‘Indiscreet.’ Those are still two of my favorite pop albums today. But later, for years, I wasn’t really aware of what Sparks was doing, because by the age of 16, I started to focus on cinema.

 

And when and how did you meet Ron and Russell Mael and tell me about how you all became involved in ‘Annette’?

 

A year or two after my previous film, Holy Motors, came out. There’s a scene in which Denis Lavant plays a song from ‘Indiscreet’ in his car: ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ So they knew I liked their work, and contacted me about a musical project. A fantasy about Ingmar Bergman, trapped in Hollywood and unable to escape the city. But that wasn’t for me: I could never do something that is set in the past, and I wouldn’t make a film with a character called Ingmar Bergman. A few months later they sent me about 20 demos and the idea for Annette.

 

What has been your relationship to musical films? Is the idea of
making a musical something you’ve been thinking about for a long time?

 

Ever since I began making films. I had imagined my third film, Lovers on the Bridge, as a musical. The big problem, my big regret, is that I can’t compose music myself. And how do you choose, work with, a composer? That worried me. I didn’t watch many musicals when I was young. I remember seeing Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, around the same time I discovered Sparks. I eventually saw American, Russian, and Indian musicals later. And of course, Jacques Demy’s films. Musicals give cinema another dimension —almost literally: you have time, space, and music. And they bring an amazing freedom. You can direct a scene by following the music’s lead, or by going against the music. You can mix all sorts of contradictory emotions, in a way that is impossible in films where people don’t sing or dance. You can be grotesque and profound at the same time. And silence, silence becomes something new: not just silence in contrast with spoken words and the sounds of the world, but a deeper one.

Sparks

Ron and Russell Mael

 

Was Annette always meant to take on a sort of rock opera musical form?

 

There was always the operatic, some rock but not much, and Sparks’ unique mix. I have always been struck by how you take formal and experimental risks, but you’re also not afraid to make visual gags with these very physical actors. Annette is about two performers. 

 

How did you conceive of how to show their performance domains?

 

I first wondered: why is she an opera singer, why is he a stand-up comedian? Sparks’ world is pop fantasy, with multilayered irony. But I had to take it all seriously at first. And I knew nothing about opera, and just a little about stand-up comedy. I quickly became very interested. These two forms, so far apart, do share a few things. The nakedness, vulnerability, of opera singers and comedians on stage. The game with death: opera is basically women dying on stage, in every possible way, while singing their most beautiful, poignant song, called the aria; and great comedians, like Andy Kaufman, are the ones who flirt with death on stage. Grotesque is essential to comedy, while serious opera avoids it, but is often mocked as grotesque anyway. And singing and laughing are both very organic: they rely on a complex anatomic system, the same vital system for how we breathe. I started to see the whole film as a metaphor for breathing: life and death of course, and laughing, singing, giving birth, holding your breath, … Also, breathing as a musical rhythm. In the prologue, we can hear your voice asking the audience to stay focused and to hold their breath!

 

Which now takes on a new meaning, since Annette came out during COVID, when
you’re not supposed to breathe too much in the company of others. Life and death, again.
Backstage musicals, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the films of Vincente Minelli
and Busby Berkeley, sometimes make profound comments about the essence of
performance and connecting to the audience. Was that on your mind when you were
making Annette?

 

When Sparks gave me their first songs and a treatment, I had one big concern: the guy was a stand-up comedian, but there was no sense of what his act was like. I had seen some stand-up in France, as a kid and later. And through my parents, I’ve always loved Tom Lehrer. He was a math teacher who started doing stand-up in the 1950s, singing and playing piano. His songs are very tongue in cheek — a little like Sparks’ actually. In my first film, I had stolen this line from him: “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” And I used a bit of one of his songs in Annette — bu this time with his permission.

I also knew Lenny Bruce’s and Andy Kaufman’s work. I started reading biographies about them and others —Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, … Some comedians vomit out of panic before their act. To enter the stage knowing that you have to make people laugh… Must be terrifying. Like if I were forced to go on stage at Cannes… and to go naked. So there was a dual theme: opera, the woman who dies on stage, with music and grace; and stand-up, which involves grotesque —and provocation, to the point where it can become self-destructive, as you can see if you watch any great comedian perform. The story of Annette is so archetypal and contemporary at the same time.

 

Do you remember your first emotional response to the story when Sparks presented it to you?

 

I loved the songs right away. I felt fortunate, and grateful. But at first I told them I couldn’t do the film. I had personal worries. I have a young daughter —she was 9 at the time. And although the brothers knew nothing of my life (I think), there were some things in the
storyline that could upset her. And did I really want to —could I— make a film about such a “bad father,” at this time in my life? But as I was listening to the songs over and over again, she started to love them too and asked me what they were. I told her and realized she already understood a lot; and that by the time the film would get made (if it ever did), she would understand how a film project comes to life. So I said “Yes.”

 

At the time, did you have to find strategies to make the film your own, so you could make
it?

 

Music is so intimate. I couldn’t see myself doing a musical if I didn’t feel for every note in every song. I was worried about that, especially since we were trying to have the whole film in songs. Musicals usually have 10 or 20 songs — with often half of them boring. But we had to create 40 songs: 40 songs I could see, then film. And how do you work with music when you’re not yourself a musician? But the process with Sparks was miraculously simple: they’re very inventive and humble and fast, with that unique sense of melody and rhythm, melancholy and joy. And I’d known their music for so long; it felt like going back to my childhood house decades later — but a house with no ghosts. There’s a risk, when you have so many songs, however great they are, that the film will become a cloying cake. Or a jukebox playing too loud too long. Which would have killed the experience. So you have to be very careful with the total score, the same way you have to be with the totality of your film when you edit a sequence. It’s a matter of finding the film’s natural breath. Another concern was: how to create Henry? A Henry I could relate to. And what true father-daughter relationship could I imagine, in this context of “exploitation?”

 

Can you talk a bit about the opening sequence, with the ‘So May We Start’ song? Is it
meant to be an introduction to the film?

 

Not really to the film, more to the film’s specific form. It owes a lot to Sondheim’s great ‘Invocation And Instructions To The Audience.’ And also, to the tradition of the opera prologue, especially the beautiful one from Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle.’ As with the first scene of Holy Motors, you’re in it. Yes, and again with my daughter. I had imagined it for me, her, and our dogs (but we couldn’t bring the dogs to LA.) For Holy Motors, it was important to be there with her at the very beginning of the film. Probably to reassure myself, after all these years of not making films, that we were just doing a small experimental home movie. In my mind, these last two films are experimental films. Annette is a big one; Holy Motors was a small one. I think of them as “films I have made since becoming a father.” It’s interesting to compare both films: Holy Motors was so experimental, and you’re right Annette is as well, but it has much more of a traditional story arc. Much more than any of my other films I would say. That comes from Sparks. They came with this dark fairytale, which I think respected. 

 

And with Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue of course brings things towards a ‘musical’

 

Toward the end of Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue sings a song that mentions having a child… Losing a child, actually. It was the first time I wrote lyrics for a film. Neil Hannon, from The Divine Comedy, wrote the song’s music. A very good experience, and a step closer to making a musical. I had always worried about what would happen if I asked someone to write music, and then didn’t like it. But we got to a song I liked a lot, and filming Kylie was beautiful. So it gave me confidence.

 

Did you have the desire to make a film in America (or in the English language) before this?

 

To make a film in English, for sure. English was my native language. But no, shooting in America was never a strong desire. About 20 years ago, I had a project called Scars, a tale set in Russia and America —New York, and on the road to the West Coast. And in the 1990s, an adaptation of Peter Ibbetson, set in France and America. In those years, after Lovers on the Bridge, it was impossible for me to make films in France. So I considered making films in the US. It seemed possible, or less impossible. Annette also started as an American project, with producers in L.A. I kept getting emails from them, with the word “hyperexcited” written all over them — but nothing was really happening. So I brought the project back to Europe.

 

Can you talk about shooting in L.A?

 

The film was imagined for L.A. The Mael brothers live there, were born there. In all these years of pre-production, I was asked again and again to move the film out of L.A, because shooting there is so expensive. I tried to imagine other cities but they didn’t work as well. I wanted Henry to travel on his motorbike like a cowboy, between his world and Ann’s world, and that wouldn’t have worked in New York, Paris or Toronto. So we had to reinvent LA, mostly in Belgium and Germany (which are not very Californian countries.) A fantasy version of a fantasy city. We only shot in LA for a week: the prologue, the motorbike shots, the forest amid the canyons and hills.

 

Annette is a return to the boy-meets-girl theme of your past films. There are shades of Alex
[Denis Lavant’s characters in the first three features] and Pierre [Guillaume Depardieu in
Pola X] in Henry. They meet someone that they have this intense spiritual attraction to,
but because they can’t live up to their own high expectations of either the relationship
or themselves, they submit to this death drive of destroying themselves and the
relationship. Do you see a connection between those male characters?

 

I see a connection between the actors: Denis, Guillaume, Adam. First of all, they’re interesting people, and not all actors are. I had only seen Adam in the TV series Girls, and I thought, like Prince Myshkin when he sees Nastasya Filippovna for the first time: “What an extraordinary face.” And also, an extraordinary body. He reminded me a little of Denis, although Denis is short —my size— and has a face people call strange. Adam is tall, with a beautiful face that some people would also call strange. Guillaume and Adam share a similar physicality: they’re strong, feline, very handsome young men, with something both feminine and masculine.

In Henry’s performances, he talks a lot about laughter, but it’s not a joyful laughter that’s in the film. He uses very personal aspects of his life as fodder to make people laugh, and then later on he uses laughter as a menacing weapon against his wife. Laughter becomes a question of life and death. We needed to invent two very different shows that would fit into the narrative. That was a big challenge, hard work. I forgot how many versions we tried, all very different. And since at first we wanted everything to be sung, it meant writing the entire shows into lyrics —and it had to be funny in a way no other comedian has ever been funny. I couldn’t find a way to do that. Then one day I thought: maybe Henry doesn’t always have to sing; he could go from singing to talking to mime. I felt liberated. I was consulting an American friend, Lauren Sedovsky, on the project. She knows a lot, about everything: art, literature, philosophy, … She told me about this old mime play by Paul Margueritte, called ‘Pierrot assassin de sa femme’, in which Pierrot searches for the best way to kill his wife, and finally decides to tickle her to death. It was the perfect inspiration for our laughter, breath and death theme.

 

Did Adam Driver have any input into Henry’s monologues on stage?

 

Not in terms of writing but in terms of acting, very much so. I usually don’t rehearse, ever, I hate it. But I did rehearse the two shows with him, each one for a day, at the beginning of the shoot. To reassure Adam. And myself, too. We knew each other so little. I also needed to check the rhythm of these two long sequences, and how Henry should move on stage. How he would play with his mike, etc. And Adam proposed many things. So the shows were really a collaborative creation between Sparks, Adam and I.

 

Tell me how you came to work with Marion Cotillard?

 

Marion Cotillard

I first met with American actresses (Ann was supposed to be an American). But I couldn’t find Ann. Then I thought of singers who could maybe act, but still couldn’t find her. I was getting worried: apart from money and reputation, the other main reason I have made so few films is what people call “casting”. I see casting as a totally unnatural and absurd practice. And each time I had imagined a project without an actor and actress in mind, I had to abandon it — could never find the right actors. So I felt doomed. What would happen if I never found Ann? Could I, for the first time, force myself to work with an actress I didn’t really want to film? A few years before we finally shot Annette, I met with Marion. Without much hope since, for some reason, I thought we wouldn’t get along. So I was surprised to actually like her very much, and believe in her for Ann. But there was, of course, a problem: Marion was pregnant so couldn’t shoot when we were supposed to. But the film kept getting delayed anyway because, as always, financing and production were a mess: I had to change producers three times, etc. So two years later, I offered the part to Marion again, and Adam and I were very glad when she said “Yes.”

 

You said that you don’t like rehearsing with your actors. I was wondering if you do any of
the traditional things when you direct them? How do you know when it’s right?

 

These questions are always hard for me to answer. Cinema is something I’ve done so sporadically, just a few films in 40 years, and when I’m not in the action, I tend to completely forget how it’s done, or how I do it. I can’t see myself doing it. But I think it always involves an obscure mix of extreme precision and extreme chaos. Directing has a lot to do with choreography, all the more so for a film like Annette. Although it’s a musical without any dancing, the music and singing force everything to move differently. And if you do it right, bodies, cars, trees appear to be dancing. Working with actors is, again, all about precision and chaos. Marion is at ease with both, but more on the precision side. Adam, at different times, needs one more than the other. So for some scenes, he would feel lost, get mad. I was asking for too much precision, or leaving him in too deep a chaos. Those scenes are of course the ones in which he delivers his most inventive and inspired work. Maybe we’re a bit the same in this way. I loved filming Adam. I shoot many takes. Less now than I used to — since I’ve turned to digital, I don’t watch dailies anymore, so I don’t feel the need to retake every shot like I used to. Sometimes, you want another take because you’re looking for something specific. But more often, it’s the opposite: you need to get lost, to reach a point that is, to me, like a déjà vu illusion: where it seems like you’re in the middle of a dream… or that you have seen or dreamt this before… “I’ve been here before,” but I never knew it.

 

In Annette, the songs replace regular, naturalistic dialogue. You get used to characters
singing to each other. How did you decide for the songs to take on a very casual
conversational quality and how did you communicate that to the actors?

 

The first decision was to have the actors sing live. An evident choice for me, but not easy for the people involved —sound people, camera people, money people, and the actors of course. It implies not going for the performance. Singing becomes more natural, like breathing. It’s something that’s quite moving to do, and to watch. It was easier for Adam than for Marion I think. Marion always felt her voice could be better; Adam didn’t have this concern so much. Once we started shooting, he was an actor, not a singer. I like how both of them sing in the film, each in a very personal way.

 

I remember you saying that a lot of films start as a single image for you. Was there one
for Annette that triggered the rest of the film?

 

Since it was not my original project but Sparks’, Annette really started with the music, their music. The vertigo of music. And although I didn’t write any of it obviously, I often felt more like a composer than a filmmaker. Which I guess has sometimes been the case on my other projects anyway. I didn’t have any actors in mind, and especially had no idea how to show a baby, from age zero to six… a baby who could sing… The film seemed impossible to make. But I’m used to that, and every film should be impossible to make. The first image that came to me was more of a feeling or an intuition: a tiny star, alone and lost in the dark infinite — the smallness of Annette in the face of the world. And then I thought of Masha, a little Ukrainian girl. Years ago, I had lived with her young mother and her, in Ukraine. She was two years old then, and a wonderful child. At times, she almost looked like an old lady; but she was beautiful, in a very particular way that moved me. Masha would be the inspiration for Annette.

 

You once mentioned that animation wasn’t really your wheelhouse. Do you still feel that
way?

 

Yes. I can enjoy it for a few minutes. If my daughter really insists, I watch a Miyazaki with her for example, but I’m not interested in it. I like real movement. And my love for cinema starts with: a person looking at another person. A man filming a woman of his choice, a
woman filming a man of her choice. I like filming nature, cities, a gun, engines, fireworks and explosions, … But I need above all a face, a human body. Skin, eyes — and the emotions reflected in them. Annette herself is at first this puppet figure.

 

How did you come to that decision?

 

Like most decisions, by first saying “No, no, no” too many things. “No” to a digital baby; “No” to 3D imagery. By personal taste or distaste, and because of what they call “the uncanny valley.” Which would’ve been even uncannier in the case of a small child. And because if you do it digitally, it’s all post-production, which is anti-emotional. I couldn’t see myself shooting the film without Annette among us on the set, by herself or in the arms of the actors. Then I said “No” to using robotics or animatronics: Annette had to be someone, something I could understand, not a computer. Something simple, hand-crafted. So I thought of a puppet. I knew nothing about puppetry — but at least, hopefully, someone could create an emotional puppet.

 

A concept suggesting that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human
beings provoke uncanny feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers
It’s a big risk that you took.

 

An exciting one. But did I have a choice? And, maybe for the first time, I had to really think of a future audience: were people going to accept a film in which a puppet suddenly appears, and nobody ever mentions she’s a puppet? A film in which none of the other characters, played by real people, ever see her as a puppet (except Henry, maybe). But the film is a musical, and I don’t make naturalistic films anyway, so the reality of the film was already out of this world. I imagined the scene in which Ann gives birth to Annette as a way to introduce the baby puppet to the audience. In the world of the film, she’s a real baby, but we can see right away that she’s not a baby of flesh and blood.

 

With the Showbiz News bits, does the film try to get at the notion of celebrity and how it
can be such a destructive force?

 

That has more to do with the roman-photo aspect of the film’s first part. The couple is “rich and famous.” I find it very difficult to film rich people. Again, this irony problem. The two films of mine that do portray rich people, Pola X and Annette, are the only ones based on
stories I didn’t imagine myself. Sadly, I am not Douglas Sirk, and the times have changed since the 50s, when the rich & famous could still be seen as substitutes for vain and vulnerable gods in a Greek tragedy. But success is very interesting —I also used the theme in Pola X. Whether one wants it or not, and then achieves it or not, and then whether success is personally successful: whether it makes you grow or shrink. I had decided that Henry would come from a poor and violent childhood, while Ann would come from a boring but safe childhood. There’s also the fact that opera is seen as high, refined, art; whereas stand-up is considered a popular or even vulgar art. So there’s almost a class war there. Of course, like in many love stories, this discrepancy is one of the reasons they fall in love in the first place — the press calls them “Beauty and the Bastard”. But then, Henry becomes like these guys who see a stripper in a club, fall in love with her, marry her, and then beat her up because she’s a stripper.

 

I was struck by one of the lines in Henry’s performance: “Comedy is the only way to tell
the truth without getting killed.”
 

 

Oscar Wilde said something like that. But we all have to go through this. We all have to find our way of telling the truth without getting killed. I mean the truth about ourselves.

 

And what about the motif of monkeys in the film?

 

When I was small, my father had a female chimpanzee, Zouzou. She was very jealous. He kept her in the bathroom next to the parents’ bedroom, on a long chain, and at night she would jump on the bed and attack my mother. A few years later, I had two monkeys of my own, Saï and Miri, small ones with long tails. It was a very sad, very morbid experience. They got sick, dehydrated. I put them in a small drawer in my desk with some cotton, and each time I opened the drawer I would see them trembling. We finally had to euthanize them. Monkeys represent both dangerous wildness and martyrdom. I love them.


How did monkeys get into Annette? 

 

I think it was the result, as it often is, of a few coincidences. I was looking for a title for Henry’s show, and remembered that some ancient theologist had called Satan “Le singe de Dieu.” So I called the show, “The Ape of God,” which sounds like a wrestler’s ring name. Then the puppeteers suggested that baby Annette could have her own toy, a teddy bear, and I liked the image of a puppet puppeteering another, smaller creature. But I chose a monkey, not a bear. And then I saw that one of the young puppeteers had created, for one of her own shows, a big Kink Kong puppet, and I absolutely wanted to use it in some way in the film. So gradually, monkeys invaded the film, and became a link between father and daughter, savagery and childhood.

 

The scene with the six women coming forward feels like a dream sequence, removed
from the reality of the film. Ann is in the back of the car, falling asleep…

 

I had a hard time imagining Henry’s fall from grace. In the original treatment, he just became less successful over time. But I wanted it to be sudden. So I started imagining things that could go very wrong with one of his shows. It had happened to a few real-life comedians. Michael Richards became famous with the sitcom Seinfeld, but one night, as he was doing his stand-up show, he suddenly went into a wild racist rant, and then had to retire from stand-up. Dieudonné was a very successful French stand-up comedian, politicized on the left, who for some reason moved to the far right, and whose anti-Semitic provocations kind of killed his career. And Bill Cosby ended up being convicted and imprisoned for raping women. But these cases, involving violence, sex or racism, were too real for our film; they would make Henry too obvious a villain, too early in the film. So I thought: first, he won’t do anything terrible, he’ll fantasize about something terrible, and people will hate him for
that —because comedy’s truth does have its limits. And then Ann too should fantasize about something terrible, in relation to him. He has visions of her, dying again and again on stage, and plays with the idea of killing her. And she dreams of him being accused of having abused women.

 

Were you thinking of bad male behavior and how it’s connected or not connected to
artistic output in the creation of Henry’s character?

 

Yes, but it’s something I’ve always thought about. Bad men, bad fathers, and those male artists who were terrible people but inspired me so much. Starting, when I was young, with the great French novelist Céline, who became mostly known for his anti-Semitic lampoons during the Nazi occupation of France.

 

Do you think it’s too much to expect from artists to also be good people?

 

Not too much, but it’s not the right expectation. There are of course great artists who seem to have been beautiful human beings, like Beckett, or Bram van Velde. As far as we know, they suffered, but didn’t make others suffer. And their beauty imbues their work. But I’m not sure there are many such artists. Was Chaplin a good person? Or Patricia Highsmith, whom I like a lot? The two most gifted comedians of our time, in my mind, are Dieudonné and Louis C.K. One is a fascist lunatic, and the other apparently forced women to watch him masturbate. Annette only turns into a real girl in the end, when she’s totally alone. That’s the Pinocchio side of the film —and the reason why I added that last scene in prison.
And it’s often the truth: it’s when kids get rid of the adults that truth comes out. That’s what I experienced. And that’s why I changed my name when I was 13. I don’t want my daughter to ever push me away, but that’s how it happens. Annette appears and says to her father: “Yes, I have changed, and it’s over. Now you have no one to love.”

 

That’s a very shocking scene because she’s this innocent little girl, and although she’s
been through a lot, you don’t expect that she has necessarily processed all of it. And yet,
she’s so determined to break her bond with her father who is her last relative. That must
have been very difficult to write and to shoot.

 

Very. But films with certainties are not interesting. Films become alive when you spill your doubts and fears into them. When you confront what seems impossible, unimaginable to you. Like your daughter turning against you. I wanted to ask about this motif of the orphan, which you’ve talked about before. This sort of childhood wish fulfillment: a dream of waking up in a world where you’re all by yourself, a sort of scary but also totally freeing dream, which you have compared to the experience of being in a film theater. Annette literally becomes an orphan at the end. I feel very close to her. It’s like in The Night of the Hunter, but she has no big brother and no Lillian Gish to protect her. She’s really left all alone with that man-father. Cinema is for the orphan in us. I remember the experience, when I first came to Paris, of discovering films, alone in the dark, especially silent films. It had these same elements of freedom and dread.

 


I heard you were alone when you were quite young. 

 

Fassbinder once said “I was left alone to grow like a flower,” because was also raised without much oversight from his parents. I think it’s a blessing, for certain children, to be left alone when there is too much chaos around. They benefit from tragedy, family tragedies, by being left alone. The chaos allows them to invent or reinvent themselves.

Horace Panter: “Our message was serious but our music was uplifting”

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…

www.horacepanterart.com

Abdel Bendaher: “I tend to observe a lot and am careful to not be noticed”

Samir Guesmi’s directorial feature debut is described as being a ‘rites of passage’ in which a father and son will slowly grow to know and understand each other when ‘botched robbery’ and the need to satisfy older friends offer no end of conflict. Newcomer Abdel Bendaher plays Ibrahim, a youth hell-bent on finding himself and others at the same time. Here, Abdel Bendaher answers some questions about the role itself, working with director Samir Guesmi and finding his own feet in when dipping his toes into the world of filmmaking. 

 

Abdel, How did you end up being a part of this project? 

 

It was a bit of an eventful Sunday for me and my friends: we went to watch a friend – totally outclassed by older players – play a football match. At half time we dropped our ball near the spot where Samir Guesmi was. I felt he was staring at me. With his motorcycle helmet in hand and big as he is, we thought he was a cop! He introduced himself, and explained he was a director and actor. We didn’t believe him. He had to show us his Wikipedia page with a photo before we took him seriously. Then he asked if he could film us. Weeks went by and Christel Baras, the casting director, contacted me. I did a test with her first, then more casting sessions. I gave myself completely each time, because I felt the pressure mounting and I wanted to believe in this. When I found out I’d got the part I was really happy! 

 

What was your relationship with cinema before this experience?

 

 I only went to the cinema to watch American blockbusters. But with my best friend we often fantasied about making a film about our friendship and the bullshit we used to come up with together. Now I’ve started to watch French cult films, I’m opening myself up to cinema and it fascinates me. 

 

Do you remember your reaction when you read the script of IBRAHIM 

I remember feeling it was really alive. I was immersed and I believed in everything I was reading. I quickly identified with Ibrahim, who is a high school student like me. He’s shy and reserved too. It was easy to project myself into this role. I liked the friendship between Ibrahim and Achilles as I much as his relationship with his father and the connection he develops with Louisa.

 

What did you tell yourself about Ibrahim? The truth? 

 

Nothing! I told myself I was going to play Ibrahim as I am. I understood that’s why I had been chosen, that I should stay as close to who I am in life to play the role of Ibrahim. I just thought he was an unlucky boy, not a victim. He wants to do things right and avoid problems, but his mate Achilles involves him in his bullshit and exerts a big influence on him. I also think he and his father love each other very much, but don’t dare tell each other. Ibrahim is a very observant character… Like me! I tend to observe a lot and am careful to not be noticed. I’m a champion at looking away if someone I’m looking at turns his head towards me. So I had no trouble finding the right attitude for Ibrahim, and Samir helped me a lot too. He guided my gaze, sometimes even during scenes. 

 

How did Samir direct you, in other respects? 

 

He told me to not act, to be natural. The fact that he himself is an actor helped me. During the first weeks we shot the scenes in Ibrahim’s and his father’s apartment. They were complicated scenes, because their relationship is complicated. The first days, Samir didn’t want to talk to me. He had warned me that the beginning of the shoot would be tough, and he piled the pressure on me. That’s how I felt about it anyhow, and it did help me to find the right emotions for the film. At first I concentrated on my character; I was in my corner and repeated the lines to myself, I was hunched up, like Ibrahim. I quickly felt I was the character. Bit by bit I understood this was Samir’s strategy, but I didn’t hold it against him. All the more so since at the end of the first week he came to talk to me and explained why he had talked to me so little at first. Little by little I started to feel more at ease with everyone. 

 

Did you manage to forget the camera?

 

Only after several days. I got used to it gradually. I also had to get used to the crew, I was a bit overwhelmed by all these people around me. What helped me was being invited to participate in the location scouting. I got to know some technicians and quickly felt accepted. But on set, I was intimidated. It was really intense, and I felt there was no room for mistakes. I didn’t know that films were made like that. I thought you shot in front of a green screen with dialogues written on cards! Those first days were crazy – hallucinated the first few days: no comparison! 

 

How did you find your character physically? Did the wardrobe help… the chapka hat for example?

 

Yes, even if at the beginning I thought that the shoes I had to wear were lousy! These must have dated from the time of Louis XVI, these trainers! I swear to God! I wore a chapka hat, a coat, had a green bag… At first when we shot the scenes at the high school, with kids around us who hadn’t necessarily understood we were shooting a film, I was a little ashamed in these ugly clothes! But it allowed me to feel like Ibrahim. The chapka hat physically defines his character. He wears it all the time, he’s attached to it. When Ibrahim takes it off the people who look at him feel they are discovering a new face. 

 

Did you see Samir’s short film, C’EST DIMANCHE! before the shoot? 

 

This short film helped me. It doesn’t describe the same father-son relationship but it gave me clues. 

 

How did you work with the other actors? 

 

They were all older than me and had experience on films. They acted like big brothers and sisters to me. They helped me a lot and made me feel at ease, by rehearsing my lines with me between takes, for example. 

 

Were you able to leave this role easily? How did you emerge from this first film experience? 

 

When I went back to school after filming, I was shyer than before, as if Ibrahim had rubbed off on me. But that changed quickly, particularly when I was back with my friends. It’s funny, because at the beginning, I was in a hurry for this shoot to be over with. But at the end, I was sad and wanted to start again as soon as possible. I really want to carry on acting. I know how lucky I was to have met Samir. I’ve always loved the idea of trusting my destiny. Samir arrived at the right time: I had bad grades in third grade, I wasn’t sure which way to head. This film has changed everything for me. I’m like a new person, in a way, thanks to this film. It is also the first step towards the professional world. When I finished the shoot, I was a bit proud of myself, without having become big-headed. Just proud to have taken on a challenge and to have been able to play a part in a beautiful film.

With thanks to the lovely people at Wild Bunch. 

 

Deji Ijishakan: “I felt like I had to act like Zarathustra in a sense… just go to war with ideas”

Deji Ijishakan is a 21-year-old jazz musician from south London, his primary instrument being the tenor saxophone. Over a relatively short time he’s developed an eclectic and unique musical personality, infusing his passion for philosophy into his music, and forging an entirely new subgenre he calls jazz-drill. He plays in a number of jazz and fusion bands including Levitation Orchestra, Nihilism and Hypernova Militia. Over the lockdown he’s started releasing his own solo work under the name Xvngo. Ashwin Tharoor sat down with Deji to talk about his music, philosophical influences and new projects.

 

Deji, Xvngo [Shango] is your stage name, right? Where did that come from?

 

It actually originates from a Yoruba god, an Orisha in the Yoruba tradition. They have their own their pantheon and like, Shango was the god of thunder, fire and willpower. I was inspired by that.

 

How was your lockdown?

 

It’s been really up and down you know. I’ve had some really high moments, like for instance I just started releasing my music under the alias Xvngo, as a solo artist. I also finished my degree, got into the Masters I wanted to do and started a business. At the same time, in other areas it’s been quite negative. I know someone quite dear to me who’s been affected by coronavirus. I’d definitely say it’s been more positive than it has been negative.

 

That’s good to hear.

 

I think it’s good to go through some difficult times, because it makes you stronger, psychologically.

 

So, when did you start playing music?

 

I’ll never forget my earliest memory engaging with music, I think I must’ve been like 8 or 7 years old. It was on a laptop, not a music programming laptop or anything like that. There was this programme on there, for a game or something. I remember there being a wizard involved. I remember playing on a keyboard that allowed you to play [music] with the keyboard of the laptop. Testing sounds and being like, oh wow, what is this!

 

Did you have any big musical influences in your family or at home?

 

Funnily enough, one of my uncles is a saxophone player. And my dad forced me to play the keyboard when I was quite young, and at first, I was against it. Even though I must’ve shown him some type of musical inclination. But yeah, he wanted me to play and I was rebellious at first but then I really got into it and began to love it. So, my dad was a big musical influence, and then growing up throughout secondary school I was very much involved in music.

 

What about your first musical love, in terms of an artist or a band?

 

The first really profound musical love I had was for John Coltrane. I’d say when I learnt about Charlie Parker, I was like, wow, this is amazing. I was about 13 years old, so I was quite lucky to be introduced to bebop music. The way that I got into bebop is quite funny. I’d been playing the piano up until I was 13, and I used to go to this mentorship. And, at the time I listened to a lot of hip-hop music and my mentor looked at all the music I was listening to and he was just cussing me out for like an hour, and he was telling me I need to stop listening to this stuff.

 

What was he cussing you out for?

 

Like, he has quite a conservative taste in music, listens to Ben Webster and that type of thing. He said like anything after the 1980s is almost sacrilegious music (laughs), you know what I mean? But yeah, he was cussing me out for listening to like MGK, Giggs, Waka Flocka Flame, even Jamie Fox.

 

Sounds like he didn’t like hip-hop at all.

 

Yeah, he was very anti-hip-hop. And then after that, out of fear, I started listening to some jazz music. And I was like, you know, I really like this. Once I’d been introduced to it in that way I really began to fall in love with it. Then I started playing the clarinet. But when I found Charlie Parker as a result of this awakening, this jazz awakening, it really blew my mind. I couldn’t believe someone could make a sound like that, like a human being. I really couldn’t even comprehend. Now that I play bebop, and I can take the lines and I can play it, it’s kinda different. But when you’re standing completely beholden to it…

 

With no conception of how it’s made…

 

Yeah, it’s just so sublime. And then time went on, I kept on listening to jazz, and I found John Coltrane. It was beyond sublimity with Coltrane, because you could just see a man on a journey with music. And, he’s just leaving everything else behind, he doesn’t care about anything. He’s almost channelling – like he’s a vessel for his own unconscious mind. All the potential things in his brain, that he could release, to do with music. Like he’s trying to exhaust his whole potential musically. Which is such a beautiful thing to see.

 

I really like the way you put it. So, which jazz musicians do you really like on the scene today?

 

Well I’d say in terms of modern guys, I’d say like Joe Armon-Jones. I love his music; I play with him as well. Moses Boyd as well, really good music, KOKOROKO, Wonky Logic just put out some music. There’s hella people, Ezra [Collective]. And then you got other people like Levitation Orchestra, PYJÆN. I really like Empirical, another modern UK jazz band. There’s a lot of heads lying about doing some sick stuff, taking all different angles towards the music.

 

So as far as I know, you’re in four bands? Hypernova Militia, Levitation Orchestra, Nihilism and KOKOROKO? Is that last one correct?

 

Yeah, I’m not a member of KOKOROKO, but I play with them. I’m in the KOKOROKO family, but I wouldn’t call myself a member. But the other three yeah, I play in all of them.

 

Are they all active at the moment?

 

Hypernova’s active, Levitation Orchestra’s got some music coming out, Nihilism we’re gonna be getting in the studio to record an album.

 

Nice! I’ve seen Hypernova and Levitation Orchestra live and they were both amazing, but how would you differentiate the styles of the bands that you’re in?

 

With Hypernova, I’m the band leader, and the whole mission of Hypernova is one big philosophical, comical, abstract, absurdist, mess.

 

It’s off the rails.

 

The way that I approach that is gonna be way more primitive, and like almost letting your unconscious mind take control of the whole situation, whereas with Levitation Orchestra I’ll take a backseat. With Levitation Orchestra we’re all trying to write music together, so I’ll just try to contribute to the collective composition, as opposed to trying to drive it all. And with Nihilism as well it’s very collaborative, and a whole other sound world from Hypernova – which is typically bebop. The funny thing is we’re now putting the drill music with the bebop. On our EP there’s gonna be a drill track where we’re playing on it. First drill track with live horns.

 

That sounds sick, tell me more about jazz drill? And your new single Entropy?

 

Jazz-drill really started with me and Matt from Harris Westminster [our Sixth Form]. At university in first year, when I had my saxophone, I’d be hanging out with people but I’d also wanna practice and they’d be playing drill music and so I’d just play over the changes. And then, I was like, let me just keep doing this it’s good fun, it’s different. Now it’s become a thing of its own and I’m just trying to make as much of it as I can.

One thing I appreciate about being an artist and putting out music, is you can just superimpose anything you’re experiencing or anything you find interesting into the general story behind the music, the artwork, or the name of it. With Entropy, it’s a nod at this thing called the free energy principle. It’s a neuroscience theory that says your brain is an inference machine, so your brain is always trying to make predictions about reality. Once you have a system making all these predictions, it means that entropy will play a role in it. What entropy is, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, is that we’re constantly moving towards more disorder. We’re constantly moving into more micro-states than previously were. Now as a statistical machine, what does it mean for you to be moving into more micro-states, moving into more disorder? It when there’s a prediction error, it’s when the statistical machine predicts something but then is surprised when the information it gets doesn’t marry up with what it was supposed to get.

[Neuroscientist] Karl Friston has been using mathematical equations behind thermodynamics and entropy to apply it the brain, but there’s just so many implications behind it. There are even implications for psychedelic drug use. There’s this thing called the entropic brain hypothesis made by this dude called Robin Carhartt-Harris doing research at Imperial [College] about this right now. Saying how psychedelics increase the entropy of the brain, and that’s why it can help people with depression.

 

That’s really interesting. How did those ideas inform the music, if at all?

 

I don’t know if I could say that I consciously felt it informing it, but once I’d made the music, I feel like it represented that. And the music that I make is always in some way gonna be related to whatever I’m reading or whatever I’m thinking about.

 

Was there any particular inspiration for how you incorporate philosophy into your music?

 

I mean, Mr. Stone [from Harris Westminster] used to teach philosophy of music (laughs). But I can’t really think of any artists off the top of my head who used to incorporate philosophy directly into their music. I just felt like doing it, I just felt like it had to happen.

 

What do you want people to feel coming way from your gigs? Especially Hypernova, which I guess is the most…

 

Visceral!

 

Yeah!

 

I want them to feel confused, I want them to feel entertained, want them to feel like they may be learnt something. I want them to feel like they need to start questioning the way they view reality.

 

What else do you like to listen to, other than jazz?

 

I love classical music. I love Beethoven, Bach, Shostakovich, Vivaldi, I love Vivaldi. I love Stravinsky as well. Other than jazz music, I mainly listen to classical music. Listen to some dub, listen to some drill music. But I also listen to some indie rock stuff, I listen to whatever I’m feeling.

 

Yeah, nice! You gotta have a mix. What’s on the horizon for you, in terms of new music you’re making or releasing?

 

Hypernova records the EP this weekend, that’s gonna be released sometime before I die. (Laughs)

 

Fingers crossed.

 

In terms of my solo project I’ve always got music coming out. I’ve got another single coming out in the next three weeks. You can always rely on me to have a single coming out.

 

I know you’re an avid reader of philosophy, but when did that start?

 

When we were at Sixth Form, I was into philosophy but I never really read it properly. Mr Stone actually inspired me quite a lot. And from then on, I was very much into metaphysics, Plato, Kant as well. Having that philosophical viewpoint helped me when I got to university, but I think my real engagement with philosophy started when I started watching Rick and Morty. There was a period in my life, I think Year 13, when I used to believe a load of these crazy theories, like some batshit crazy theories. Then I remember watching Rick and Morty, and seeing Rick and seeing how much he only allowed what he believed to be dependent on logic, rationality, reason and science. That kind of broke down a lot of the way that I was perceiving things. From then on, I was introduced to Existentialism and Nihilism and started getting into Nietzsche. When I got to university, I was like I’m just gonna read as much as I can. I just devoted myself to it. I read Thus Spake Zarathustra and that changed my life.

 

How did it change your life?

 

For me, after I read that book, I felt as though anything that was some trouble or something that caused me pain, it felt more like a war. Like a righteous war. Because after reading Thus Spake Zarathustra, I felt like I had to act like Zarathustra in a sense, and like just go to war with ideas. That helped me ground myself philosophically and intellectually.

 

Since you’re the band leader of Hypernova Militia, how do you incorporate philosophy into the music live?

 

There are several ways that I do it. There are some commands that I do, I give the band commands. Some of them would be stupid shit like, ‘quantum spin’ and then everyone spins around or like ‘roid rage’ and then everyone plays this mad music. But then also I’d just randomly get on the mic and say some philosophical passages. Whenever I feel like it, within songs. I also say some political stuff like ‘free the market’ (laughs). But like, there’s philosophy always being drawn throughout the whole thing.

 

In terms of improvisation on the sax, is there a particular way you approach it? Feel free to get technical, or spiritual.

 

For me, playing the saxophone is so therapeutic. It allows me to escape into myself and let my unconscious mind just be expressed aesthetically, artistically. At first, whilst I was learning how to play the saxophone, there was various ways I would approach it technically. You know you have to learn your scales, gotta learn the harmony. But even the way that I approach harmony, I see the whole thing as one big game. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, or like a maths problem. Harmony, composing, improvisation as well.

 

When I play music with other people, I often feel a kind of metaphysical, mind-melding connection. How do you feel about that?

 

I get what you mean, there definitely is a metaphysical component to it. There’s the band right, but there’s the non-physical, non-temporal elements of the band, you know? Even if you killed every single member of Hypernova, as an idea it would still exist. Like, the meaning behind you guys playing together, and obviously the idiosyncrasies of the musicians themselves. Personally, when I play in a group setting it’s all about listening. Trying to produce something that’s conversational.

 

As someone who performed live so much are you itching to get back out there?

 

It has been a while, but one good thing about the whole lockdown is I could just focus on being in my room and studying and going on all these other intellectual journeys. So, I was able to explore that part of myself even more, and almost forget about performing. But then also, I really wanna perform. Human desires are really all muddled up.

 

How do you feel about the government’s response to the whole music industry?

 

(Laughs) I think they tried…We can’t spend an unfathomable amount of money on any project, any domestic policy, because it will cause problems for the economy in the future. And then people end up dying as a result of it, whether we like it or not. So, we have to be reasoned in what we do. I think they’ve given it a shot; they’ve tried. There’s always gonna be problems. We’re in unprecedented circumstances. I mean, I’m fundamentally a libertarian – stop the government from having too much power.

 

During lockdown you started a project with the slogan ‘Buy, Back, Build’, what was the name of it?

 

The name is Owó, and it means money or business in Yoruba.

 

What are your aims with this project?

 

So, we’re creating a black business directory app, so you can use the app to find your local black business, and you can also use it find venues and galleries and that type of thing. And, eventually, I’d also like to incorporate information on finance, and that type of thing. With that project, it was in response to the George Floyd death. For me, the reason why I made it was because I was like, I’m seeing people respond to this in a way I don’t think is gonna effect change in the long term.

 

What do you mean by that?

 

Just posting on social media this, posting on social media that, putting up black squares. There’s no long-term impact of this, this is all performative. People are like, I’m in solidarity, but people actually end up dying because of real economic problems. My whole approach, I don’t wanna be on the whole political thing, I’m more on the economic development approach to it. That’s why I decided to make the app. I think that many of the problems black people face in this country are class problems as opposed to race problems. And that’s an economic issue as opposed to a policy issue.

 

Do you not think they’re interconnected in a lot of ways? Policy and economics, but also class and race?

 

Policy and economics are definitely connected, but the reason why I favour an economic perspective on it is because policy is top-down, but economic development is bottom up. If you build a company, or you and your people build companies, then you can actually put money back into the community. You don’t have to wait for my man to change the law, so that he’ll give more money, you can actually do it yourself. I’m not a fan of top-down control, I’m not a fan of government getting involved in everything. So, I think the economic route is the most prudent thing to do.

 

Isn’t top down change necessary to provide the conditions in which black businesses can thrive?

 

Yeah, there do have to be some policy concessions, for instance allowing for small business owners to not have to pay ridiculous rates on licenses, and random regulations for starting businesses. Freeing up the market basically, but especially for small business owners. Yeah, we need policy change to happen, but if you take the economic route first, the policy won’t even matter to you.

 

Finally, what would you say to the thousands of young musicians coming up now, trying to do stuff and be original?

 

First thing I’d say is, listen to as much music as you can, so you can see what you’re naturally disposed towards and hone in on that. Another thing I’d say is, know that there’s gonna be times when you feel like you’re not perfect at your craft, but that’s the whole point of it. It’s the whole point of it. It’s a dialectical process, you know what I mean? You need to come up against the problems and then get through the other side. So, keep fighting the good fight, keep making that music, keep listening to music and just do your thing.

 

I think that’s about it. Thanks a lot for chatting with me.

 

My pleasure bro.

 

You can follow Deji on Instagram at @xvngo and his bands:

@hypernova.militia

@levitationspacebase

@nihilismband_official

Ashwin Tharoor is a 22-year-old graduate living in London with a passion for music, writing and visual media.

Stanley Donwood: “I like staring into space and doing nothing”

Stan Donwwod

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 which 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 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 ageing?

 

I don’t mind about my own ageing… 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 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 mushroom; 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 wrote 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 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 favourite 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 which 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.

 

Whats 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.

 

Theres 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.

 

Stanley, Dan, thank you. 

 

 

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