by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2000 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Many arguments have been made regarding the pros and cons of the ever-evolving digital music downloading arena. But a debate about its impact on album art seems to be largely absent. The fact is today’s youth are being weaned on an evolving distribution model that largely downplays, if not ignores, visual accompaniment.
Prior to the file sharing revolution, album art played a dramatic role in how music was received. Even before the shrink-wrap was broken, the artwork created specific moods, perceptions and set the stage for the forthcoming auditory experience. And together, the music and artwork often bonded in the listener’s mind, inextricably and forever linked. That bond is Russell Mills’ specialty.
Mills occupies a unique place in the relationship between the visual and aural arts. He’s renowned like few others in the music business, having created some of the most memorable album artwork of the last 20 years for the likes of Michael Brook, Cocteau Twins, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Bill Laswell and David Sylvian, just to name a very select few. He’s also been involved in elaborate multimedia installations for Eno, Sylvian and others.
Mills’ daring, sometimes lush, sometimes surreal use of color, tone and texture—all embodied within the anti-framework of collage—is at the center of his work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the focus of his emerging talents as a musician as well.
To date, Mills has released two expansive, largely instrumental solo records under the moniker Undark. The discs find Mills leveraging the respect and admiration he’s earned from the elite avant-musician community. The cast of characters is truly remarkable. In fact, all of the artists just mentioned were involved in 1996’s Strange Familiar, as well as the recently released Pearl and Umbra.
Neither album features collaborations in any conventional sense. Rather, Mills asks each artist to send him sound fragments, melodies, rhythms, vocals and themes without any idea of how they will be used. From there, Mills takes the elements and seamlessly merges them into diverse, blissfully uncategorizable pieces ranging from the flowing to the fractured.
Mills details his creative process, as well his thoughts about the future of album artwork in this conversation with Innerviews.
Describe the philosophical intersection where art and music meet for you.
Walter Pater, a writer on the Renaissance, wrote "All arts aspire to the condition of music." When I first came across this statement, I felt it confirmed feelings and ideas that I had been grappling with for years in an attempt to articulate an intuitive response to my reading of culture. Essentially, I've always believed that the arts—poetry, film, literature painting, drama, music and sculpture—hold the means by which we can escape, avoiding the everyday whilst also offering correspondences with the known past and possible futures. The arts generally have the potential to move in time, to change shapes—physically and metaphorically—to stimulate emotive responses which defy quantitative criteria and to suggest, by gestural means, alternative ways of thinking and perceiving the world around us. I believe, as did Pater, that music happens to be the more intangible. It’s capable of traveling far wider than other means of expression, carrying undiluted indigenous traditions and moods, whilst still touching "alien" cultures, affecting us in more mysterious ways than the other arts seem capable of doing.
What are some of the more vivid similarities between the aural and the visual you've discovered while making the two Undark projects?
I guess that what pleased me most with the recording process involved in the two Undark releases, was the chance to work from a conceptually-anchored base as I always attempt to do with my visual works. I wasn't sure that I, being a relative novice in relation to recording processes, would be able to follow through with such a proviso. Also, I wasn't sure whether those others involved would be sympathetic or understand this process enough to enable it to work. It is a process-driven approach which attempts to base all decisions around ideas and their conceptual and contextual possibilities rather than the usual method of relying purely on subjective responses to sound or arrangement-based musics.
Another similarity which emerged was that in both the sonic and the visual works, I tend to gravitate towards the use of some kind of undertow of menace or uncertainty, an impression of events being dislocated or of disorientation, an organic approach reflecting nature's phenomenal processes of ceaseless flux. Obviously happy, feel-good music or bright, airy visual work tends to bore me as it doesn't pose questions. It doesn't endure sustained scrutiny and it very rarely offers anything that one doesn't already know. Having said that, I do love gospel music, especially choral groups, but I feel that even with this form of music there is an inherent sadness, melancholy and a reliance on past sufferings which one accepts prior to the celebratory.
I think that my naiveté in the music making process simply obliged me to work in a visual way. It seems the most honest approach for me. I work and think epigenetically—in layers, organically and metaphorically. Ideas trigger other tangential but linked ideas, which in their turn suggest or connect other ideas, and so it goes on. Collage as a construct echoes this approach and I guess could describe most simply how both my visual and sonic works evolve.
Describe the initial seeds that led you to want to make your own album.
A difficult one to pinpoint. Briefly, music and sound have always been crucial and central to my life and work. I am a fan of all genres of music from jazz, gospel, blues and classical to the experimental and the eclectic. I've always felt and suspected, like many others do, that I could make music but have never had the courage, the arrogance or the opportunity to do so until it was suggested by others. So, I guess it's something that has lain dormant for a great part of my life, waiting for the chance.
What prior musical training and experience did you bring to the table?
There is a certain amount of music making in my family's history which may have a genetic bearing on my magnetism for sound, but I suspect it stems more from environmental influences. I have a great aunt who is presently 99 years old and still going strong. She was a member of the D'Oyley Carte Opera Company. My father sang in concerts when he was a child and later, in his teens, played drums in an amateur jazz combo. My brother—six years my senior—played drums in a rock and roll band playing Elvis and the like, and period covers. Music was always playing in our house, from Artie Shaw to Benny Goodman to the close harmony work of the Ray Conniff Singers to R&B to the Beatles. So, I was steeped in it from an early age. And of course being the youngest brother, I naturally rebelled against not only my dad's taste, but more especially my brother's, and used to play musics which to them were incomprehensible—from my first purchased albums Pipeline by the Chantays, Sandy Nelson, the Ventures, through to recordings by Hendrix, Beefheart and others of similarly anarchistic tendencies.
My father was an officer in the Royal Air Force and so we were moving every two years. A long period of my teens was spent in England, Germany and Holland where we were invariably stationed alongside USAF bases. This proximity to USAF facilities and their own radio stations, as well as those stations broadcasting from Germany, France, Holland and Liechtenstein exposed me to musics that seemed incredibly exotic and bewildering. Doo-wop, blues, gospel, surf and the early underground of Silver Apples. All of this had an alienating allure which I could claim as my territory in my stumbling search for a life and a language of my own as distinct from other teenagers of my acquaintance. These kinds of music had very little exposure in the U.K. at the time. It perversely provided me with a subject that allowed me to be different from my peers.
Needless to say, whilst at school—a strangely liberal, state-run co-educational boarding school—in my teens, apart from naturally listening to pirate radio, especially John Peel, I played drums in the ubiquitous band attempting foolishly to play covers of Hendrix and Beefheart. I bought Hendrix and Beefheart albums on their days of release and whilst at school actually ran away one weekend to hitch to Brighton to see Hendrix during his first U.K. tour. I remember the other bands were the Nice and Eire Apparent. Of course I received due punishment for this piece of bravado! I also tried to go to music festivals whenever I could manage to, including the Isle Of Wight—again with Hendrix—and the Reading Festival. I was very lucky to have seen and heard some of the prime influences of their time including Pink Floyd, Free, Aynsley Dunbar, John Martyn, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Stones, Roy Harper, the Who, Family, plus some very strange bunches indeed such as Atomic Rooster and the Edgar Broughton Band.
I was also very lucky to have a young and pioneering music teacher who, after throwing me out of endless music appreciation lessons for my constant drumming and tapping, finally realized that I had a talent for percussion and so arranged for me to have percussion lessons with the percussionist from the London Symphony Orchestra. He also took me to so-called "drum clinics" at the famous Greyhound pub in Croyden with the great Joe Morello from Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Then it was on to art school, which in England at that time from 1969 to 1970 was still the hothouse for experimental bands. I went to Canterbury College of Art where there was a thriving music scene with bands like Soft Machine and Hatfield and The North holding forth. Also, for a period, I lived in a house with the leader of the band East of Eden. So, I was exposed to music and the life of musicians in a first hand way. Also at that time, Ian Dury was a lecturer at the college and he started his first band, Kilburn & the High Roads whilst I was there, rehearsing in the painting studios. Another influential factor at the time was the fact that the college and university circuit was very strong, so I was lucky to see and hear a massive number of great bands.
From Canterbury, I went onto Maidstone College of Art between 1970 to 1974, where Bruce McLean formed Nice Style the World's First Pose Band, and where Michael Nyman and Eno were occasional visitors. Roxy Music was rising and I was hooked. The first stirrings of cultural and musical rebellion was brewing. To me and others, the pomp rock of Yes, Genesis, Queen, ELO and their ilk, concept albums, overblown and over-produced albums generally and the monopolies of a few huge corporations, were an anathema to creation.
Punk arrived with a healthy smash and I found myself at the heart of it all having gained a place at the Royal College of Art to study for an MA. At the RCA I was immediately plunged into the best punk bands in the U.K. Either in the college itself or at the various punk venues which blossomed out of "pub rock," I was out several nights per week seeing the sprawling and frightening, yet exhilarating, randomly charged gigs by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, Magazine, Wire, New Order, the Slits, the Raincoats, XTC, Talking Heads with the Ramones and This Heat. During this period, I visited New York, where I also got to see a whole rake of U.S. punks such as the Feelies, Talking Heads again, Blondie, Television, amongst others whose names and noise are forgotten.
I became a fan and also a friend of the members of Wire who I felt were the most interesting and uncompromisingly original of the U.K. punks. Very quickly, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis and I were devising alternative approaches to making and presenting music in a more experimental un-prescribed way that was process-driven. We staged multi-media events, recording installations which allowed and encouraged audience interaction, concerts which introduced performance art, animation, video and dance to predominantly punk audiences and we were making and using "instruments" constructed from industrial debris, possibly pre-empting Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Department.
Throughout my time at art school I had naturally came into contact with and was drawn to several influential artists whose works, thinking and lives have tinted my life and work since. These all shaped, in various ways, my approach to and appreciation of the arts in general—the visual and sonic arts in particular. These include Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, the Futurists, the Dadaists, John Cage, Robert Smithson, Joseph Beuys, amongst many others. I'm certain that my knowledge of these people has been a very strong factor in determining my collaborations with the likes of Wire, Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Bill Laswell.
Around 1975 to 1976, I met Brian Eno and began doing work with and for him, including a book of my mixed-media interpretations of his decidedly weird, wonderful and exotic lyrics called More Dark Than Shark. It was worked on over a period of about four to five years and finally published in 1986. I also created album covers, video installations, sets and light sculptures for him. Through my work with Brian, I soon became friends with and did covers for the likes of Harold Budd, Roger Eno, Michael Brook, Daniel Lanois, Djivan Gasparyan, Hugo Largo and Jon Hassell. We have continued, on odd occasions, to exchange ideas and collaborate. Eno, apart from being a friend, is one of the most genuinely creative cultural thinkers of the last 30 years.
Since around 1990 I've been involved in more multimedia installations which have always had sound at their core. Most of these have been in collaboration with my oldest friend and fellow artist, Ian Walton, who I first met in 1969 whilst at Canterbury College of Art. Our first was with David Sylvian, with whom I've worked since about 1984-85 on album covers and sets. In Tokyo in 1990, we collaborated on Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory. These collaborations continue to this day with the latest being a piece for the recent Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery.
So, I guess all of that has had some effect on the musical ideas on the Undark projects. But more important than that is the fact that I've been incredibly lucky to have met and worked with some of the most individual and creative forces in contemporary music and I'm proud to know most of them as good friends.
Was it an intimidating process to step out of the visual realm—the comfort zone?
Only in that I was confronted by banks of bewildering technology which I have no experience of! In essence, my approach, being that of a visual artist without a hard and fast career path, made the process easier than for other musicians and bands who have invested time, money and intense personal commitments into what they see as a definite career. I am still primarily a visual artist who happens to use and work with sound. Also, having my partner Tom Smyth, who is a fastidiously brilliant, intuitive sound engineer and programmer on board, alleviates all of my technical ignorance.
Take me through the creation of a track or two from Pearl and Umbra.
Some are very simple and others evolve far more tangentially. For instance, the track "Causes Cause Causes" is essentially a muse on political processes, but it also alludes to aspects or models in chaos theory, in that as soon as someone reacts to an event it creates another event which in its turn triggers another, ad infinitum. So the track began as a simple sketch of accumulating elements starting from "the thin end of the wedge." As sonic elements are introduced in horizontal slabs, the wedge of sound becomes thicker and necessarily denser until it overloads via massed filthy guitars from Thurston Moore, Kevin Shields and Mike Fearon and implodes. I wanted this track to be continually reaching points where a listener wants the assault to end but it perversely pushes on and on.
Just prior to and during the recording of the track "Canyon: Split Asunder," I was lecturing in various art colleges and universities about collage as the most important and most influential cultural idea to have emerged in the 20th century. This lecture focused on the work and ideas of Kurt Schwitters and his subsequent effect—consciously or unconsciously—on a whole host of great artists from Duchamp to Rauschenberg, from Burroughs and Gysin to the "Land Artists" such as Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, through to the recent crop of "Brit Art" talent, in particular Damien Hirst—who in the mid-'80's produced a whole series of works inspired by Schwitters—right through to collage as a concept and model as adopted by TV, advertising, film and most commonly by pop video and TV advertisements. It’s a big and sprawling subject. Anyhow, I started thinking about the link between Schwitters and Rauschenberg and in particular, Rauschenberg's work Canyon which I think was painted in 1956 and which caused an uproar in Conservative America because of its critical allusions and references to America's expansive policies at the time. I made contextual links between this lineage, that particular painting and the place of the U.S. as a world power at the time—an expanding colonial power throwing its weight around whilst looking for more enemies of democracy and "the American Way" and finally through to the witch hunts of McCarthyism. I know about this behavior being British.
Crudely, these were the ideas which floated in my brain when approaching this track. As for how this was explained to others, well, in oblique statements as the ideas crystallized. The only person who had to endure my contextually-driven babble was Tom Smyth, who was gallantly trying to emulate, with particular sound elements via effects treatments, a sense of racing and galloping which had an unavoidable authority of organized crowds whilst also suggesting a threat of the whole system fragmenting. I also like the paradox imbued in the title in that "asunder" also means to join together. So, the whole can be read as a constructive criticism of a system.
What are the biggest challenges you encounter in creating music in this manner?
No major problems, although I do get a bit picky in the process of trying to get what I feel to be the correct quality of sound or the right treatment/distance or edge to a sound. Luckily, Tom being intuitive and thankfully a perfectionist is the best person to have on my side at these moments.
What do you find most gratifying about the process?
As with my approach to my visual art, I'm open to the possibility of the initial ideas and proposed directions being diverted as long as I can somehow keep a lasso around a core of the original intention. The sounds begin with ideas and travel, sometimes in a linear, easy, straight line. Other times, they travel in a bizarre, circuitous route. Either way is gratifying as long as the journey is eventful and the final destination, whilst being in unknown territory, is of interest/fun/satisfaction/surprise.
How did you go about communicating the vision for Pearl and Umbra to the musicians you approached?
I approached all of the contributors with a request for sounds—any sounds that they wanted to offer, as long as none had been released or used elsewhere. I stated that these projects are experimental and I couldn't guarantee that they would like the end results. I didn't request any particular sounds, styles or mannerisms, nor did I prescribe any ideal form for these sounds. The contributors could supply whatever they wanted. My only proviso was that I would have full editorial control over their use and abuse within the context of final tracks.
Thankfully, all those approached whilst being incredibly generous with their time and their sounds, were also really supportive of my general collage and epigenetic approach. The sounds I received were fantastically varied and gratifyingly surprising, in many cases most unlike what one would have expected from some of the "big" names. For instance, Peter Gabriel's menu was predominantly of abstract noises and huge, extraordinarily long screams, all beautifully recorded of course!
You told Kevin Shields "You know when you look through frosted glass, you see silhouettes, but there's no clarity? Can you do that with a guitar?" What was his immediate reaction to being engaged in that manner?
Kevin immediately understood this phrase because his approach to guitar playing is, I think, analogous to this effect. Kevin and I had been talking about the condition known as "Hypnagogia"—the unique state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep—and talked around ideas of the in between, slippage, in art, music, film, conversation and perception. I simply reflected these notions back to Kevin with reference to his guitar playing and was suggesting other ways of envisioning conditions of sound. As an aside, My Bloody Valentine were one of my favorite bands of recent times. Their live shows were really unique displays of controlled opposites.
What did you tell Bill Laswell?
I simply asked him to give me some bass lines, in reference to nothing other than qualities of the sound itself—i.e. huge, walking, searching, rumbling, growling and submerged. Bill, being Bill, provided all of that and more. He is one of the best bass players of the last 20-odd years, a genuine catalyst for change and a genuinely gentle bear of a man.
What about David Sylvian?
David's involvement was removed from other processes as I sent him a selection of rough mixes of several tracks. I did this with no other artists. I have an implicit trust in David's judgment and in his care with sound, so I just waited for his response. Luckily for me, the track "Rooms Of The Sixteen Shimmers" appealed to him and he said that he'd like to put a lyric to it. I was naturally delighted and responded by asking him to accept my desire to retain the title no matter whether his lyric bore any correspondence to it. He, graciously and generously incorporated the title into the lyric. The title actually refers, obliquely to James Joyce. "Sixteen Shimmers" is from either Ulysse’s or Finnegan's Wake—I don't remember which exactly. I didn't inform David of this quote as I didn't want to color or constrain his contribution. As I said before, I didn't want to prescribe anything precisely to any of my potential donors.
Were there any dangers inherent in receiving random pieces and sounds from the artists represented?
Not at all. This was the whole point of the project. I wanted to be removed, subjectively, from the initial creative process, partly to avoid the certainty of having to dictate conditions and directions of play, partly to avoid the inevitable disappointments brought about by familiarity, but also to allow new things to emerge without references. I hoped to be knocked sideways by the samples I was given and I was not disappointed! What I received was cumulatively like a palette of previously unknown, unseen and until then, totally unimaginable colors—the uncertainty that I favor again.
Give me a cross-section of feedback on the two albums from some of the artists involved.
Eno said that it was great night listening and it gave him the right kind of willies. The general response has been encouraging, favorable and extremely flattering. Most contributors have been pleased with the way their elements have been treated and integrated. Many have been unable to detect their original samples within tracks. Sylvian was really happy with the integration of his vocals, Laswell loved it all. In fact, I haven’t had a single bad response, which is a great relief and very gratifying.
Contrast the creative catharsis of the finished aural product to when you finish a piece of visual art.
As with the visual works, the eventual realization of the Undark projects is full of contradictory sensations and emotions. I experience a great exhalation of relief, and yet feel clouds of uncertainty. I swell with pride whilst folding into a collapse of exhaustion; I curl up in doubt, and shiver with joy; I nag with regrets and hug Tom for being such a gem. It is an entirely strange, confused stage to reach. Unlike visual works, which are notoriously hard to be certain of recognizing as being finished, the aural product has a more easily defined end point which is dictated by time, budget and schedules. At the end of the day, I prefer the autonomy of uncertainty inherent in finishing a visual work. Then again, if I were given the same conditions in which to make music, I may never finish a track. One has to work within given and agreed parameters.
Explain how you work with musicians to create album art. Of course, this likely varies greatly between projects. But in general, what direction do you seek from an artist? And what is the ideal scenario for you in this regard?
Naturally, this process is dependent on the individual artists, their personalities, the album in question and the ideas that each artist may bring to bear. My initial response is to the music and sound. I try to get inside the essence of the work and lock onto its prevailing mood suggestions. As with my "personal" images, paintings and assemblages, I endeavor to seep personal ideas into applied works such as album covers.
The works for Nine Inch Nails on The Downward Spiral are a good example of the ideal, successful process being realized with relatively no pain. The tone of the music suggested ideas of catharsis, being into dissolution into being, both on a personal and sociological level. The lyrics, whilst tending towards that adolescent confessional rant, also referred to images of personal decay, descent and futility and yet had some spark of hope. Conversations and a meeting with Trent Reznor about the approach to the art revealed that my instincts were correct. Following these discussions, all I needed were a few key words to meditate on and to build on: attrition, decay, uncertainty, lost dreams, broken promises and temptations. The images I produced attempted to strip these subjects down to enigmatic but conceptually certain grounds, simplified metaphors.
The organic prevailing over or feeding into the industrial is a common theme in my work generally and in this instance was particularly apt for the art required. Bandaging soaked in wax, paint and blood, became as a ground for sheets of man-made metal which has become paradoxically more beautiful in decay as the elements of water and air had played upon it producing the intricate colorings of rust. Added to this were insects, moths and the remnants of webs; all intricately beautiful and marvelous, even in death. These are gestural elements which invite multiple readings. All of the other complementary images produced for this album and the accompanying singles followed these ideas throughout.
What can you tell me about the artwork you created for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Musst Musst cover?
The image used is a detail from a larger piece which was actually done for myself, so was not commissioned, it was an extant piece which seemed to connect with the spirit of the music. The colors in particular suggested a comparative resonance with the music, with its origins, with its geographical source and with his particularly soaring vocal delivery.
Is there a spiritual element that informs your work?
Fragile territory here. There’s potential for rambling into pretentious claims about fluffy, half-baked beliefs. Hmm, best to be careful. But wait a second, let's just think about this carefully. In its true sense "spiritual" means of spirit, of the soul, especially as acted upon by God, proceeding from God, the holy, divine; concerned with the sacred or the religious, as opposed to matter which is real, solid. I don't believe in any God or religion or any other belief system that relies on speculative hypotheses and superstition. To me, these systems are voodoo crutches for those who cannot or will not look at the world openly, objectively, rationally and honestly. I do, however, totally believe in matter and its implicit mystery despite the fact that it is all around us, open to scrutiny and examination. Matter, the earth, is the most wonderful scientific, cultural and artistic invention, given, that we have. From it, we have learnt all that we know and yet we still know very little about how it actually works in a holistic sense. It still has much to offer us if we can learn to respect how marvelous it is and how fundamentally essential it is to our physical and mental well being. As phenomena, it is my idea of something that could be deemed to be spiritual but only if our understanding of the word spiritual were to be altered.
From a business perspective, you've experienced the harsh realm of the music industry from the outset with the demise of Time Recordings—the label that initially released the first Undark album. How did that experience impact you?
Obviously, I was totally pissed off! I felt as if I had been betrayed by people who I had trusted and who I thought were on the same wavelength, only to discover that their real ethos was duplicitous, self-serving and predatory. What compounded my total loss of respect for them was their cowardice in not having the guts to admit that Time had died through their inability to manage efficiently. Even when they did announce that they had ceased trading they continued to blame everyone else in the music world rather than accept that it was their blind arrogance which was at fault.
Luckily for me, other people thought that what I'd been doing with sound was worthy of further explorations and I was contacted by Robin Guthrie who had just started, with Simon Raymonde, a new label, Bella Union. They invited me to do an album for them which I naturally jumped at. So from feeling incredibly suspicious of music dealings generally, I was again buoyant—but cautious still.
Compare the business of music to the business of visual art.
Pretty much the same from my experiences. A major difference might be that events move faster in the music world than in the art world. Both are generally populated with morons. In the music world, most are ignorant of music and in the art world most think they know everything about art. Both are lacking in vision, passion and genuine love of their subjects. There are exceptions to these generalizations of course, and thankfully I have been lucky enough to work with and deal with some of those who care and who have some degree of discrimination. In both I wish there was more bravery and less reliance on the known, the formulaic or the fashionable.
Do you believe the evolution of digital music downloads is substantially impacting the perceived importance of album artwork?
I suspect that your assumption on this will prove, sadly, to be correct. Apart from the obvious effect that music downloads is having on the visual work, i.e. making it redundant, the importance of album artwork is already under threat for several other reasons and factors coming to bear. Record companies are trying to impose lower fees for artwork and are, I think, commissioning artists and photographers who are really not very good or who have little real sympathy or passion for the music. These alleged designers/photographers/artists are by definition cheaper to employ and are less likely to fight for or enter into dispute for what they believe to be the right aesthetic or conceptual direction or ethos. Coupled with this is the fact that anyone with the basic Photoshop skills can and does set themselves up as a "designer." The results are all around us and are evidence of a noticeably lazy, ill-informed, soulless approach by the so-called "designers," as well as those who commission the work. What I do, i.e. produce original works from hand via computer, is definitely under threat, mainly for the reasons I just stated but also from the plethora of image banks, stock library organizations, and those who slavishly use them to produce quick, vacuous layered collages which mean nothing and which look like every other album or book cover one sees these days. Not a lot I alone can do to change the tide except carry on doing what I believe to be honest and appropriate.
Given the fact your musical output emerged as a direct result of your work in the visual realm, do you find it ironic that the two may have to be separated in the future?
Not really, because at present I seem to be working in both areas of expression equally and my approach to making music—to sonics—is the same as that employed in visual work. I'm being involved in more multimedia installations which require me to consider, approach and make both the visual and the aural as complementary elements which are equally important parts of a bigger whole. My thinking and my processes involved in the making of visual images is similar to those required for working with sound, the only real difference being the tools. Should my so-called musical career become more dominant, I'll continue to make images whether by commission or for personal exploration, and vice versa. So long as the music making and the art continue to be enjoyable struggles, serious play, then I'll continue with both—no matter what the fashions are or what "threats" are emerging in the commercial world.
You've spoken of the presence of "gratuitous design" in the visual arts. Is there an equivalent scenario in the recording arts?
The most obvious is the genre of girl-boy bands which have been flooding popular music over the last 10 years—duplicate, build-it-yourself, all-singing, all-dancing Barbie Babes and Ken Dopes, strutting their highly-polished but vacuous R&B/soul crossovers, satisfying most people’s need for the lowest common denominator. It is a fabulously conceited display of the marketing man's one creative idea which succeeds by mass duplication, like the thousand bomber raids over Germany during the second World War—cluster marketing. By concentrating on one form to the deliberate exclusion of any others, the music world denies any plurality or diversity and thereby cuts off any potential innovation to emerge.
There’s a tendency to brand music created by artists venturing out of their chosen realm as "vanity projects." For instance, actors and models that have ventured into the realm of music are often subject to harsh judgment. What’s your take on this?
In most instances, criticism handed out to "stars" who venture out of their known field has, I suspect, been entirely justified. But the reasons given for such attacks are based on the wrong criteria. In principle, I have no problems or objections against this type of exploration or extension of one’s talents. In theory, it should be encouraged, tolerated and accepted for what it is. But those who choose to side-step into other areas of creativity have to understand that they will never be judged on the merit, or lack of it, of the actual work produced in this "new" territory. The baggage of their previous life will be hauled out for comparative scrutiny. This is fine and to be expected, but more often than not the criticism is not objectively based, but is based on accumulative histories, on fashion, on snobbery and perversely, on the fear that the critic may have to actually announce that this work is good! God Forbid—whatever, whoever God is.
In the U.K. in particular, I find there to be an appallingly blinkered, self-preserving attitude from critics, reviewers and academics towards those like myself, who choose or who happen to float between art forms. We are immediately damned as being "mere dabblers," not heavyweights, dilettantes and worse. This is not exclusive to the arts and music but it also occurs in the sciences and in industry. Critics and other so-called arbiters of taste and culture find it convenient to close ranks and only expound on topics which are known or in which they have a vested interest. Anything outside of that category, the unknown, the marginal, the new with no name, is ignored or ridiculed and belittled.
In the U.K., we have produced some of the most brilliant minds, some of the most influential ideas and innovations in a multitude of areas from the pure sciences, engineering, poetry, chemistry, aviation, literature, painting, sculpture, fashion, music, philosophy and computers. Yet if one examines the history of ideas and their evolution from seed idea to reality, one finds a tortuous trail which has been dogged by critics, cynics, clerics, accountants and bureaucrats who have feared the new and the unknown and have done all in their power to halt progress. The fact is that these innovators have invariably been impassioned, highly focused individuals who have either been working in isolation or have been determinedly pursuing singular visions within larger organizations—against the accepted precepts of their "craft." They have generally been viewed as cranks, radicals, communists, anti-establishmentarians or as, even more insultingly, arrogant, simply because they have dared to question the status quo and propose new possible futures. As you probably guess, this kind of subject gets my blood boiling.
Samuel Beckett sums up this dilemma in Waiting For Godot when the two characters—Vladimir and Estragon—who in their endless wait for the arrival of Godot are becoming increasingly bored and frustrated with their situation and with each other, find their conversation slipping into angry insults which they turn into a game of trading abusive insults to while away the time. The winner is he who can hurt the other with a totally destructive, withering insult. In this instance the most withering insult is that of Estragon who spits out—with finality—"Critic!"
What encouragement or advice do you have for other artists who wish to explore a completely different side of their creativity but are afraid to do so for fear of criticism or being misunderstood?
Do it and remember Beckett's other glorious axiom: "Dare to fail, but dare to fail better."