Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bobby Gillespie, punk rocker, and Jim Lambie, artist and Boy Hairdresser

Interviewed in London W1, published in the Scotsman, 1 November, 2003. By Alastair McKay

In a white room above the London street where David Bowie posed for the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bobby Gillespie and Jim Lambie are discussing hair. The nest on Lambie’s head looks as if it has not seen a brush for several millennia. "Do you ever get those days," the artist is saying to the rock star, "when your hair is just mental?"
"Aye," the rock star replies. "When I wash it and go to sleep, then I wake up and the front bit goes like..." He holds the front of his Timotei-clean mane aloft. "It’s like fuckin’ Flock of Seagulls, man."
"Yeah, man," the artist replies. "Washing your hair, washing, it’s just such a pain."
Lambie, a Glasgow-based artist who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, has designed the sleeve for Dirty Hits, the ‘best of’ album by Gillespie’s band, Primal Scream. The cover is a menacing collage of eyes peering from a vortex of black tape.
The two first met in the mid-1980s, when Lambie was making videos of the band at Gillespie’s Glasgow club, Splash One. Lambie found that using a camera was a good way to meet people. He filmed the first Sonic Youth show in Scotland, the Jesus and Mary Chain (for whom Gillespie was an early drummer), and Primal Scream, during an early performance at Edinburgh’s Hoochie Coochie Club.
"There was oil wheel lighting on the band," Lambie recalls.
"There was 35 to 60 people there," Gillespie remembers. "It was a good gig for what we were then."
For a short time, Lambie played with the Boy Hairdressers, who mutated into Teenage Fanclub. On their single ‘Golden Shower’, he plays vibraphone. "I was the worst musician in the world, man. I got to the point where there was a bit of frustration. I was technically inept and, although I had ideas, it just seemed to take forever to turn them into something."
Instead, Lambie went to Glasgow College of Art, where he studied environmental art. Gillespie - whose musical career has seen him mutate from a 1960s flower-child to an acid-house stoner to an undernourished Jagger clone with a Peter Fonda fixation - had followed Lambie’s work, but decided to ask him to design a sleeve after he experienced his taped floor piece at the Tate. "The floor was the size of a cathedral, a big church, and he’d lined it with different colours of tape, and it was amazing to walk on it. It was disorienting. I felt as if I was on psychedelics.
"Other things I’d seen were black plastic bin bags hanging from the roof of a gallery," says Gillespie, "and he’d slashed them, and they were different colours, and the paint was dripping onto the floor. In this thing, there’s no reference to anything else he’s done."
"You could break it down," Lambie says. "The use of tape on the floor, and here I’m using the tape."
"The floor’s more mathematic," Gillespie says, "and this is more chaotic."
"It is," says Lambie. "It’s freeform. It’s much more jazz. I could probably thread through everything and take you on that journey, through my work, kind of like the way a DJ would start the night with one record that would feel one way, and at the end of the night you’re in a different place altogether."
Before he did the sleeve, Lambie embarked on "research", joining the band for eight days on their summer tour with the Rolling Stones, flying to Benidorm, travelling on the bus to Vigo, then to Lisbon.
"Method artwork!" Gillespie exclaims.
"It was a good learning curve," Lambie says, laughing. "I learned how to take care of myself."
The trip, he says, was helpful in that it allowed him to get closer to the notion of what the band was about. The sleeve is jazzy, psychedelic, punky. "I do freeform all the time. That’s the way to go, man. If I have to plan something, I think it means I’m outside it. That doesn’t work for me."
Lambie contends that he could have built a career on his psychedelic floors, but opted not to repeat himself. His descriptions of his work can tend towards the airy, but he is not keen on providing explanations. The mystery is the point. "Everything’s held together by sound and vibration," Lambie says. "I see everything bouncing off music. I’m music, you’re music, Bob’s music, everything’s music."
In a previous work, Head and Shoulders (with Conditioner), Lambie defaced the faces on old LP covers, which ranged from Barbara Dickson to Elvis. "That was using the format of the album sleeve to describe something else. That’s what art should do."
For Lambie, music and art have always been connected. He heard about the Velvet Underground through reading about Warhol. "I thought, ‘If he likes them and I like him, there’s something I could go and look at.’ So I go out and I discover this amazing band. From that, you listen to what they’re into. That’s what education should be about."
For Gillespie, music led to an appreciation of art. "And a lot of people got into the Velvet Underground through David Bowie, because he produced Lou Reed and Iggy."
"That’s probably why we’re doing what we’re doing now," says Lambie. "Coming from two different areas, and you end up somehow meeting in the middle. Even me using the video camera to hook up with bands, to connect. Warhol’s already there."
Dirty Hits is drawn from Primal Scream’s last five albums, from their artistic high point, Screamadelica, through their Stones impersonation, to their current incarnation as purveyors of brutal electronica.
For Gillespie, ‘best of’ albums were an education. "I had Cannibalism by Can, ’cos Pete Shelley did the sleeve notes. Can were a really weird-sounding band. How can they sound like this and then like that? The same with the Stones. You’d get Rolled Gold and it’d have ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ - it made me feel weird that song. I don’t know why, but when I was a kid, it used to really freak me out. It used to put a hex on me. I’d play it in my da’s car, and I’d be like…" He makes a noise of bemused exhilaration.
"Jagger is amazing. How charismatic is the guy? It’s unbelievable. The last night of the tour that we did with them was in a car park at the side of the motorway outside Zaragoza. It was like a George Romero film when we were on. The other gigs we played we got a good reaction. That night it was raining, there was grey skies, it was like a zombie movie.
"The Stones come on, Jagger whipped the place up. He came up into the stage, in the middle, where they did the gig in the round, and they did ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. It was frightening. We were all just looking at each other thinking, ‘This guy’s amazing. So much energy.’ You can tell when people are just doing it cos they’ve got to do it. He was loving it. We had a photo taken before. I looked at the guy and I thought, ‘You’re amazing’. He had a silver jacket on and a beautiful hat."
Gillespie and Lambie shared a working-class upbringing, in Springburn and Airdrie respectively. They agree on the importance of their origins. "Your upbringing and your cultural environment are going to shape your aesthetic and the way you feel about the world," says Gillespie. "There’s an aggression in our band that, say, the guys in Radiohead don’t have. It’s definitely a need to escape."
"Attitude builds up towards what you’re doing and the way that would place itself in the world," says Lambie. "You can sense attitude."
I suggest that their attitude is based on the fact that they come from the geographical margins. Gillespie disagrees. "Scotland, a marginal place? I never saw it as that."
"You thought everything you did was always going to have to filter through London," Lambie says. "I can only speak for the art world, but that’s changing a lot now. You can actually bypass London easily. That’s got nothing to do with being anti-London. It’s just geography. You can go to Amsterdam as quick as you can go to London. You can go anywhere. Cheap flights."
"We were looking all over the place," says Gillespie. "We never thought, ‘We’re a Scottish band.’ I hate nationalism. It’s just stupid. All I wanted to do was get out of the environment I was in. I wanted to get out of Glasgow. I wanted to travel and I wanted to be in a great rock ’n’ roll band.
"When I was in the Jesus and Mary Chain, I was 22, and that was the first time any of us had left Glasgow, in terms of going to the Continent or America. More than anything, I just wanted to try to express myself. I knew I had it in me and I just wanted to do it, but I didn’t know how. This sounds bonkers, but I wanted to make music that I loved and was excited about, and I knew that if I made that music, I could go other places and meet people and do things. Otherwise I would have been stuck living in a room in my da’s house. Nothing against my da, but, you know, I’d been there for a long time."
"Your initial question about looking out at the world," says Lambie. "It was more like bringing it in, or drawing it into you. You’d be buying records from New York or wherever. ‘Looking out’ makes it seem as if they’ve got something more. I never saw it as looking out and being dazzled. It’s more like, f***, this exists, and bringing it in. This is something that I like, and I want that round about me."
"For me, punk was like a sense of amputating yourself from society or the culture you grew up in," says Gillespie, "and being encouraged to express yourself. I had already amputated myself, so what gave me the courage to do the things that I did was music, and punk music. It was more like I didn’t fit in. This sounds like real teenage angst stuff. It’s not. It’s the fact you don’t want to be a f***ing ned. There’s a culture in the west of Scotland - and it’s the same in Manchester or Liverpool or London: that prevailing male, alcoholic, violent, working-class culture - that I don’t want to be part of, that I grew up in. In that culture you’re not encouraged to express yourself. Anybody that tries is put down, so people are scared."
Punk, Gillespie says, was a means of expressing individuality. "You know when you’re a kid, and you’re just watching things, and you’re taking it in, but you know that you don’t want to do this or that? You go to the football, but you’re not really there. Your body’s there, but your spirit isn’t. You enjoy the match, but not what goes on around it; the violence and the sectarianism. You’re already cutting yourself off. For me, the punk thing was like, ‘At last, some people that think like me. I’m not alone.’"
Punk also encouraged the notion that technical excellence was less important than enthusiasm, which appealed to Lambie. "People who indulge in the technical side of it become elitist. It’s like Santana as opposed to the Pistols. It’s like maths rock. Most people who heard the Pistols reckoned they could start a band. It’s the same in art. Technically gifted portrait painters - that’s fine, man, but for me it’s more about ideas. Ideas can happen in an instant. Things can come together really quickly. For me, that’s much more of a release, that’s much more of a generous act. There’s a notion that if something looks technically proficient that somehow it’s a better piece of work. In art, if something looks easily made, there’s a suspicion there. That’s a parochial attitude."
Lambie is equally suspicious of the notion of artistic inspiration. "I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in keeping looking and dragging in ideas. I don’t really know what I do, but looking at it, there’s a lot of familiarity in the materials and a basic structure in the work. You recognise the familiarity, but there’s something that has changed, and that change for me is what has happened once the thing has gone through the glue that’s inside my head.
"I’ve never had any ambitions other than just making work. I’ve never had any inspiration. I’ve only ever felt as if I’m just noticing something that I haven’t noticed before. I wouldn’t put it down to inspiration, because that sounds as if it’s coming from a higher place, and I think, very much, it’s coming from round about me, where I am right now."
Gillespie mentions the importance of instinct. "Maybe you become better at it. When we started out we weren’t that great, but we had something, because people still liked us. People used to write that about us, that they liked the spirit, but not the music. If you eventually write the right music, you transcend that and become something else."
Over lunch in Ziggy Stardust Street, towards the end of their second Coca-Colas, Gillespie and Lambie talk about the aura that surrounds certain musicians. Johnny Cash, says Gillespie, had a big spirit. "It’s like Hank Williams or Jerry Lee Lewis. They’re just permanent."
"They’re signs as well," says Lambie.
"They’re signs?" says Gillespie. "What do you mean? That sounds good."
"Signs are everywhere," says Lambie. "Someone who’s a bit more involved in art, they pick up on them and turn them into music or art. He’s created a lot of songs that become signs for people. He’s always present. He’s always something for people to go back and look to, and say that was a particular point in time, or how I felt then, so he becomes a sign of how their life came together."
"The last time I saw Johnny Cash was about 1989," says Gillespie. "His band was all dressed in black, and when he came on his voice filled up the whole fuckin’ hall. I’d never heard anything like it. I’d been to hundreds of gigs, but his voice had this weight. It was like a big black cloud. You know when you see a big black storm coming up the Mississippi river? It was like that. It was eternal."
The talk turns to Memphis, Tennessee, the home of rock ’n’ roll and Southern soul, and a place to which Primal Scream have made several pilgrimages. On one trip, to record the Dixie Narco EP, they arranged to meet the great colour photographer William Eggleston, with a view to using one of his pictures on the sleeve. While the band was recording, an advance party visited Eggleston’s home, where they found the great man in an advanced stage of hospitality. "He had this really short hair, and this grey army pullover. He had jodhpurs and boots on. He looked like a colonel in the Confederate army. He looked really aristocratic, but in a good way: wild-looking.
"He was walking about with a big rifle with a bayonet. It might have been a Civil War one. Nah, it was one you could shoot. So he’s walking about with this rifle, with a bayonet, and his wife’s lying on the couch in a negligĂ©e. It was totally Southern gothic. It was crazy. He sat at the piano. He said, ‘Do y’all like Rabbie Burns? Well, fuck you if you don’t, because I’m going to play some.’ He’s a great piano player."
"Eggleston changed the way I thought about making work," says Lambie. "The colour had drained out of most contemporary work, and I started looking at his photographs probably around 1992. The colour saturation was amazing. Look at my work now, there’s always a lot of colour in it. But that wasn’t what was going on in art at that time. I remember saying to [Big Star/Boxtops singer] Alex Chilton,‘Eggleston’s photographs changed my life.’ He’s like, ‘I can’t imagine a photograph changing anybody’s life.’ I was like, ‘Lots of things change lots of people’s lives.’"
Gillespie creases up, making the noise of a slowly deflating ego. "The next time we went to America, I met this lady," he says. "She was friends with Tom Dowd, the engineer/producer who did a lot of work for Stax and Atlantic, and he did A Love Supreme for Coltrane. He was an amazing guy, and this lady who was an old Memphis friend of his. She used to come to the studio every day with really expensive cakes. We called her the Quaalude Queen because she was always bombed. She used to be Elvis’s press agent, and she was going to introduce us to [Elvis’s physician] Dr George Nichopolous’s daughter. Dr Nick’s daughter! We were like, ‘Please, please, anything to get to the great man for a script.’ It would’ve saved my life, but Dowd thought the sessions would’ve fallen apart.
"Anyway, she was friends with Eggleston. She says, ‘You’d be driving a car and he’d go, click, and take a picture of the clouds, and that’s it.’
"People would say to Eggleston, ‘Do you ever see something and wish you’d gone back and taken a photograph of it?’ He says, ‘Aye, but I never go back. You get one chance.’"
Lambie grins through his hair. "That’s it, innit?"