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?"

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ivor Cutler, absurdist poet, teacher, songwriter, Magical Mystery Tourist, survivor of a Scotch childhood

Interviewed in his North London home by Alastair McKay. Published Sunday, 5 June, 1994, to accompany an exhibition at the Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, of Katrina Lithgow’s photographs.

The directions to Ivor Cutler’s flat in Kentish Town are very detailed, involving hills and churches and roads fanned out like the fingers on a hand. In the end, though, it comes down to a question of learning. “Do you have a classical education?” the tremulous voice had demanded on the phone. “Because the number on the door is in roman numerals. Och. Don’t worry, the numbers next door are in Arabic, so it’s easily recognised.”
After a long wait, the door with the roman numerals opens. Ivor, a sprightly 71, is wearing electric pink shorts and a patterned skullcap. Cutler has a collection of stickers with which he decorates his correspondence. On his hat is the one which reads: “To remove this label take it off,” though it could just as easily have been the one that boasts: “Never knowingly understood.”
Cutler’s living quarters are as could be expected of a man who can enjoy the poetic resonance of a lemon meringue pie, or write a song called Never Trust a Human Being, in which the last verse observes optimistically that you can, however, rely on a hen. Which is to say that there are surprises everywhere. It is a display of organised chaos: of wooden birds, plastic flies and seashells. Among the old unframed paintings, the pottery, and the yellowing illustrations, there is a large photo of an Ivor from a different age, bald, but with black hair at the sides, looking like the young Bernard Bresslaw.
Cutler has just concluded A Stuggy Pren, a short series on Radio 3, in which his deadpan reminiscences on a Scottish childhood were mixed with his current interest, the promotion of an anti-intellectual style of poetry. (The poem of the title was first published in the Scotland on Sunday Magazine).
He has devised a scheme through which undiscovered bards can locate their voices. It involves relaxation techniques and voice exercises. The budding poets should then set an egg-timer at three minutes and write down the first thing that comes into their heads. Thinking about meanings is prohibited. Cutler is interested in how the unconscious mind communicates, and considers the intellect to be a block on creativity.
“I was lying in bed last night playing about with Pitman’s shorthand. Usually I have Japanese and Chinese dictionaries round the bed, and the question is ‘How is it that these little marks of black on white are capable of communicating something?’ I remember seeing a film when the woman, the hapless maiden, is with a man who intends to kill her, and she says to him, ‘I poisoned your coffee’, and he stands up, keels over, and dies. And I thought, supposing she had said ‘I poisoned your coffee’ in Chinese. He would choke her to death. And yet, it was just these vibrations in the air that killed him.”
Today, Cutler is probably best known for his sessions on John Peel’s Radio One show. Peel has been broadcasting him since 1969, and he has had more sessions than any other artist. His first break came when, as a school teacher, he decided to try to write funny songs, with the hope that he could earn enough to stop teaching. After a couple of fruitless years knocking around Tin Pan Alley, he was booked by Ned Sherrin for the Tonight programme. Unfortunately, his appearance was cut short when the engineer accidentally pulled the plug in the second verse of a three verse song.
An audition for the radio show Monday Night at Home followed, and Cutler took some of his stories and poems. “The producer went behind the glass thingummibob, and I read it out, and his secretary came out and said: ‘I think you’ve hot a gold mine, Mr Cutler.’ It turned out to be a copper mine.”
Cutler’s most affecting work is that which is drawn from his childhood memories. The Life in a Scotch Sittingroom series has been followed by the more autobiographical Glasgow Dreamer. Both are bleak and funny, precise in their language, and beautifully rendered. In a sample sentence – “‘This mince needs something,’ grunted father, returning a barely chewed mouthful to his dessert spoon” – the mince, something, and the dessert spoon are all loaded with humour, rendering something mundane into the stuff of high pathos and comedy. You have to laugh.
There is, however, an undertone of hurt in much of Cutler’s work, and he has resisted offers of a biography for fear of dredging up bad memories.
“When I was 15, I tried to commit suicide. My big brother was a medical student, and he brought home a sample of aspirin. It was a packet of six. I looked at it and it said ‘Maximum dose: two’. So, one night I took the whole six, and then I wrote a goodbye letter” – he issues a wheezy laugh – “and I thought, ‘that should do it’. I wrote that I had just discovered what a horrible place the world was. This was the mid-1930s, when Hitler was doing his thing. And not only that, the torture of being a teenager. I woke up all refreshed the following morning and I said to my brother: ‘You know these aspirin? I took them all and I tried to kill myself.’ He told my mum and dad. God, they were deeply embarrassed.”
He maintains that his wish to die was sincere. “Suicide has always been a good friend to me. For me it’s something that’s very comforting: the notion that it’s available. And also the notion that it’s extremely difficult without doing yourself an injury. The options are really not very pleasant. High buildings have been my favourite for quite a time. But recently I was in a building and I was up eight storeys, and I could quite easily have jumped onto the tarmac below, and I decided against it. Because I have discovered at times of great despair it’s usually a preamble to exciting things happening. So I’ve hung on.
“Like when my marriage broke up, and I thought I was old and ugly because I was 40, and life was over. And in fact, life began then, as I discovered.”
His teaching career began at Paisley South, he did two years at AS Neill’s Summerhill, and then moved to the Fox in Notting Hill, where Tony Benn and Ken Russell sent their children. “In Paisley, I didn’t use the strap and I was getting a nervous breakdown because they thought I was a softie. In the end, I bought a belt. I sent off to Lochgelly where they make them. It was a thing about this thick. So I went to the staffroom and I said, ‘Anybody got a skinny belt, and I’ll give them this fat one?’ There was one teacher, a real sadist, and he made the exchange, so I got a thin belt, and I hung it on a wall. And of course the class had to test me, so I hit them.
“When Neill accepted me, I got a razor blade, and I cut the belt up into 50 bits, and I gave each kid a bit so they could think ‘Thus are the mighty fallen’.”
On moving south from Summerhill, he took his progressive views with him. In Notting Hill, he remembers teaching the nine times table and boasting he could do it standing on his head. “Then I realised what I had said, so I put down a cushion and went down on my head. Of course all of the money fell out of my trousers, so I came down sharpish.”
Many of Cutler’s attitudes to education were informed by the (not unusual) brutality of his own experience, at school in Shawlands. It was an upbringing of strict rotation and obedience, teaching information rather than the ability to think. He was, for example, belted 200 times over three years for bad writing, and discovered later that the problem was physical. With hindsight, he also suspects an element of racism. “I’m a Jew and the teacher used to have me come out and sing the Jewish national anthem, and he said: ‘Come on out and sing ‘Call Out The Lifeboats’. That was the nearest he could get to ‘Kol odd balavav’ which was the beginning of the song. Looking back, it seems funny, but when I put it all together, I realise…”
Cutler’s father was a manufacturer’s agent, something Ivor was ashamed of, until in adulthood he read an essay by Ernest Benn which explained the importance of the middleman.
When the war started, he wanted to follow his two brothers into medicine, but his father explained to his (then humanitarian vegetarian) son the brutality of medical training. “He said if you’re going to become a doctor, you’ve got to get hold of a frog and smash its head against a wall, like the Nazis did with babies, and then dip it into a bath of acid, and it’ll try to wipe the acid off, because it’s the spine that’s operating the intelligence.”
Ivor became an apprentice fitter at Rolls-Royce, but did not fit in, though he loved the aesthetics of mechanical engineering. “And then I saw in the Daily Record, a banner headline: ‘Abraham Levi, Conscientious Objector’, and I knew what that was about.”
Fired up with the desire to do something for the war effort, he applied to become an airforce navigator, and got one flight away from being awarded his wings. His career was cut short when two examiners discovered that his habit of gazing in wonder at the clouds was making his flights erratic. “That was my war experience and I was deeply embarrassed at the time, but with hindsight I think the Almighty must have had it in mind for me to do something more important than getting shot to pieces.”
His first 28 years were spent in Scotland. “Everyone in Scotland thought I was daft. My parents and my family and my colleagues. Everyone. I mind when I wrote my first song on the piano, and I said, ‘Mammy, come and listen to this song’. I sang the song through to her, and I could see her face drooping a bit. She said: ‘It’s very good.’ Then she said, ‘Ivor, couldn’t you write about something nice?’ It was a song about: ‘I’ve a hole in my head, dentist/Please fill it up with teeth/Put one set on the top, dentist/And another set underneath.’”
His efforts at art were also derided. One early example, pinned to the wall, shows a distorted head. “I remember doing one of these drawings and I stuck it up on the staffroom wall at Paisley South school, and I when I was out of the room somebody got a Polo mint and stuck it over one eye, making it 3-D.”
He enjoys drawing attention to himself, and once turned up for a television appearance at the BBC with half a boiled egg taped to his forehead, though, to be fair, it was hidden underneath a bowler hat. He views creativity as therapy, is not mad, but will concede that he suffers from alienation. He is recognised in the street about once a day, and enjoys it, though he realises this does not put him in the same league as the Beatles. He says he considers himself to be a child still, sees no hope of changing, and is grateful.
“There is a French philosopher who said: ‘Incongruity is the basis of laughter,’” recalls Ivor, now dressed in a lumber shirt and flat cap.
He has forgotten the man’s name, but remembers the words.