INTERVIEW BY JONAS BOEL, MARCH 2010
How did you get in touch with the boys from MGMT? Did Sonic Boom have anything to do with it?
I met the Ben and Andrew after Sonic Boom brought them over to my house before a Spectrum show at club here in LA. I have a collection of WW2 German gear as well as a bunch of Low Brow and Hot Rod stuff so they wandered around my house checking it all out. They’re much younger than me so their Pop Culture background is completely different than mine and they had plenty of questions about it all. Part of the reason that we got along so well is that even though they are musicians and I am an artist, we both want to give contemporary culture a good kick in the ass and wake it up.
I met the other band members Matt, James and Will when MGMT was recording “Congratulations” at a mansion in Malibu. We would sit around to listen to the day’s recordings and I would draw on scrap pieces of paper while they discussed the tunes. When I left to drive back to Hollywood I just left the drawings there so they would have something to look at. It was all very casual. Being in a situation where a band is recording entails a lot of time sitting around doing nothing; then there are moments of extreme activity and madness.
On one of my visits I took my friend Victor Balogh from the band The Charmkin Rebellion. He was particularly interested in MGMT’s recording setup since it was all going down in a house and not a studio. Instruments and equipment were strewn all over the house so it was like a battlefield in there!
Did the band give you carte blanche, or did they have some special requests?
I communicated mostly with Andrew and the art director from Sony, Josh Cheuse. As with most projects like this the original idea becomes a starting point, so after Andrew’s concept got a nice dose of my distortion, the image began to declare its own intentions. The initial idea was to have the cover look like a lottery ticket but after a few sketches that idea got shitcanned. The idea to make surfing the main narrative came about early on but it was a good three weeks before I got the preparatory drawings to the point that I could start on the actual painting. Paintings are not at all like computer files; once something is done it can’t be changed easily. I had to emphasize very strongly that I did not want to have to constantly rework the painting.
Did they play you some songs of the new album and if so, what do you think of it? Could you compare MGMT with another band?
The music that I heard up there in Malibu was mostly jams that they had recorded earlier that day; I never got to hear any complete songs. That may have just been their method, recording jams and then developing them into songs later. Anyway, the jams I heard were brilliant, really great stuff; it was obvious that they were having a good time and enjoying themselves. I never got the sense that it was drudgery for them.
I would compare “Congratulations” to Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. But there’s really nothing quite like the MGMT sound and soft fury…
What is it in your work that attracts musicians, you think?
Ha! I’m actually more attracted to musicians than they are to me! I admire a great musician more than a great painter because I know what it takes to make a painting, but how a great song comes about is a mystery to me. Still, I’ve had more than one musician tell me that it must be great to be a painter because I get to work alone and don’t have to put up with the personality disorders of a bunch of other people to get anything done. Even graffiti crews seem to get along better than some bands!
Not all musicians want to be represented by an illustration, a lot of bands want a photograph of them to be the image that identifies them; it’s an ego trip, ya know? It’s actually a major compliment for me to be chosen by a group to make a painting that matches up to their “message” and identity. Until a CD gets put in the changer or a record makes it to a turntable the only thing that’s happening is the cover art. In a way the cover art of an album or CD is an overture to the music.
Does music inspire your drawings/paintings? Or what else inspires your work?
Music helps me keep working in the studio; there’s a lot of crazy thoughts going on in my head while I paint so its good to be able to drown them out with music. I listen to heavy Dub a lot since the repetitive nature of the music sort of suspends the passage of time. I also listen to bootleg recordings of The Rolling Stones from the time that Mick Taylor played with them, 1969-1975. After listening to a particular show repeatedly I get to know all the crowd noises and I can sort of anticipate certain shrieks and screams from the audience. Believe it or not, that helps pass the time; I can think “Okay here’s comes the chick yelling for Paint It Black… she yelled it… now its time for Keith Richards to nod out… there, he missed the intro…”
It’s impossible to say where inspiration comes from since it can just drop in unannounced! For example, while working on the cover for “Congratulations” Andrew, Josh and I were emailing like mad and working on ideas but that “click, its right” moment hadn’t occurred. I finally went out, had some coffee and walked the dog; when I came back to the studio I started a completely new idea and that’s the one that ended up pleasing everyone.
How do you feel about the term ‘Low brow’? What does it mean for you?
My only complaint about the term” Low Brow” is that it indicates the work as being in conscious opposition to “High Brow” art. I think that Low Brow Art would have happened whether or not the artists had an active dislike for Abstract Art, Opera or Still Life Painting.
Low Brow art uses sources of information that are not sanctioned by the Fine Art world. Surf, skate and Rock ‘n Roll culture are either actively despised by the Fine Art Mafia or they are diluted and ridiculed. Low Brow art accepts those subcultures and holds them to be as important as Classical Hellenic sculpture.
I have many Low Brow friends who want to storm the museums and burn all the abstract art. I enjoy seeing that kind of work; it doesn’t bother me that it exists.
You have a Dutch mother, do you still speak any Dutch or have any links with the Netherlands?
I have been travelling to Holland ever since I was a kid so I have a great fondness for that country. I’m also impressed with the tolerance that the Dutch have for vice and their willingness to make money from that.
I have shown at Galerie RudolfV in Amsterdam and my exhibition was very well received. The Dutch seem to have a genetic predisposition to cartoon art and there are some amazing Low Brow artists in the Netherlands like Peter Pontiac and Joost Swarte.
What the nicest thing anyone (famous) has ever said about your work?
The funniest thing anyone ever said came from Gisela Getty. She bought a painting that I did of a cat having a freak out in a parking lot. I had painted a big dog turd in the foreground of the painting and it seemed pretty obvious to me what it was. Well, about a week after Gisela took it home she called me and said that she had a dinner party and about halfway through someone at the table mentioned the dog shit. Anyway, she was absolutely mortified so she called me and asked if I would paint it out; I said that I wouldn’t. She ended up selling the painting to Nic Cage who apparently didn’t care about that.