Herring’s Eye: Richard Herring

This is an excerpt from my interview with Richard Herring. The interview can be read in its entirety in Issue Ten of New Escapologist.

New Escapologist: Does it trouble you that the sun will explode one day and swallow up the evidence that humanity was ever here?

Richard Herring: In my latest show I discuss my hope that I will be fossilised. I want to become the last remnant of humanity and to be put in a museum by evolved cockroaches. I also hope the evolved cockroach museum will in turn be fossilised and discovered by an alien archaeologist who will take my fossilised fossil to a faraway planet where I’ll become the only surviving relic from our galaxy. So as long as that happens I don’t care.

I think by doing the death show I have realised the redundancy of trying to achieve immortality through work or life. All of us will be eventually forgotten—most of us within a half century of our life—but it doesn’t matter as we’ll be gone. Living your life as best you can and enjoying it as much as is possible in the ridiculous circumstances is all that matters. So I am glad that eventually humanity will be wiped from existence and forgotten. It makes being alive now all the more precious.

NE: Why does recognition of our place in the universe lead to comedy?

RH: I think there is much comedy to be made from the self-importance of humanity, as a species and as individuals, especially when placed against any understanding of our insignificance in terms of space and time. In Meaning of Life I discuss how ridiculous someone from UKIP talking about immigrants must appear to any god or alien who understands the scale of the Universe. Having allegiance to one tiny speck of a tiny planet—not even having the vision to be proud of being from the entire tiny planet—and being furious about immigrants even though his ancestors were living in Africa two seconds ago, and five seconds ago they were fish. Our pomposity is at the heart of much comedy. The human race has had to learn to accept that the earth is not the centre of the Universe, nor is our Sun, and we don’t have a God-given right to do what we want with the planet. We are an off shoot of evolution, not the end of it.

Of course if the Universe is infinite it turns out we really are the centre of the Universe, but so is every single point in the Universe.

NE: What do your visits to Pompeii make you think about in terms of life, death and legacy?

RH: I think we live our lives as if the basic structure of our civilisation is secure. Pompeii shows you how everything can be turned upside down in a matter of minutes. This is a lesson of history in general, but Pompeii is a great example. It also shows us how time changes the way we view an event. I often think how weird it would be for the people of Pompeii to know that their homes and their deaths would be turned into a tourist attraction. Once you start thinking like this, it’s hard not to stop looking at the modern world and wondering what will survive and how the people of the future will view it. What bits of my daily rubbish or possessions will end up in museums? What will be here in 2000 years’ time? It’s impossible to imagine but it’s fun to try, and once again it gives you a little window into your own insignificance in historical terms. Nothing is permanent and everything will fall. Our gods will not be the gods of the future. It seems odd to me that religious people can dismiss old religions without realising that their own will one day be similarly redundant. But it’s true of political ideologies and culture and everything. Our lives are both precious and worthless: insignificant in the long term but completely significant to us. I love these dichotomies.

NE: Do you have plans to ensure your own legacy?

RH: Well, there’s my fossil plan. I’m also trying to get the external meatus renamed in my honour. It’s the aperture at the end of the penis and given all my cock-based work it would seem a fitting testament to my life. Schoolboys used to call it the “Jap’s eye”, which is obviously inappropriate, so I am trying to encourage people to rename it the Herring’s Eye. If it takes off, every time one winks at you you’ll think of me.

NE: What can we expect from your new Meaning of Life shows?

RH: An over-ambitious man discovering his limitations. For me it’s like writing an Edinburgh show every month for six months in a row and then basically filming the first preview. But I’m hoping we can make it look as good as possible despite limitations of time and budget. As I do with my Fringe shows I will be looking at some big subjects with a mixture of childishness and erudition and trying to make people think about stuff that we take for granted or don’t think about at all. The first show is about creation and so I look at religious and scientific views about the birth of the Universe and point out the inadequacies of both. But each show is also going to have a guest who is an expert who will have to field my stupid questions, but also will be given a chance to impart some actual information. I also have a brilliant animator called Chay Hawes working on some opening titles and probably a sketch for each show. It’s as much about showing what’s possible to do alone, without broadcasters or any other interference, as it is about trying to put together a funny show. It is costing me a fair amount of money to put together, but I think that it’s worth it for the experiment alone. And I think there’s a good chance that the shows will be able to compete with TV output, in comedy terms if not quite in slickness and production values. It’s very hard to get an auteured show on TV these days and producers are more interested in creating their own formats and then casting the comics and actors. To be able to do exactly what I want—to spend ten minutes deconstructing the first page of the Bible or whatever—is a fantastic freedom.

I am trying to make them all new material, but this might prove impossible given how much I am trying to do in such a short time. I am touring at the same time and trying to write some scripts that I might get paid for.
Ultimately I hope to discover the meaning of life. You don’t get that with Paddy McGuinness.

Go here to read about New Escapologist magazine (and buy Issue 10 for the whole version of this interview).
Go here to subscribe to Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life.

Pants on fire: eleven crises witnessed by Momus

Originally published in CACTUS

“Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true”.

So begins the The Book of Scotlands: a novel of speculative vignettes, each chapter introducing a different version of Scotland. Among their number is the Scotland in which money is abolished, the Scotland in which ten or more children per family is compulsory, and the Scotland in which a giant goose roosts upon the country before eventually flying away, leaving a sense of loss in its wake. Some of these worlds are satires of our own, while others are whimsical and Rabelaisian flights of fancy. We are left to imagine the crises faced by these worlds when branching off from our own so spectacularly.

The writer of The Book of Scotlands is Nick Currie, better known as Momus: a monocular Scottish pop musician, performance artist, kulturkritik, futurist, and author. He has lived in Montreal, New York City, Berlin, Paris, Toyko and has recently made Osaka his home.

Momus is nothing if not prolific. To know his work is to know him. At the time of writing, he has twenty-two studio albums to his name, has written three well-received novels and published hundreds of insightful essays both in the mainstream media and on his blog. In addition to news and retrospectives on Momus’ career, the blog (Click Opera, 2004-2010) explored such subjects as our slow and steady adoption of alternative energy resources, the differences between an American- and an Asian-dominated world, and whether his pet rabbit’s personality remained intact after his unavoidable spaying.

A tag cloud for Momus would look something like this: identity, authority, perversion, time travel, fetishism, philosophy, Japan, internationalism, Berlin, Bowie, the avant-garde. He is known for his unorthodox fashion sense: baggy pants, aprons, a wig, Cold War-era eyeglasses and—most immediately striking—a patch over his right eye. His most-frequently cited remark perverts Warhol and anticipates the mass adoption of web-based social media: “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people”.

Momus has been, if not a pioneer, then certainly an early-adopter and hearty embracer of social media and information technology in general. He produced a wave of synth-folk music in the 90s and his live music performances aren’t so much concerts as multimedia events. Online, Momus is seldom dumbstruck: even after the conclusion of Click Opera, he has maintained a regularly-updated Tumblr blog, packed with his own digital photographs and streaming video clips; and his Facebook and Twitter feeds are forever ablaze with ideas. He is certainly a futurist and, through his books, has become a cartographer of parallel universes. He has also unleashed a new performance creation upon the world in the form of the Unreliable Tour Guide. In this guise, Momus drags tourists and art lovers around museums and galleries, telling them satires, half-truths and lies about the venue and exhibits. Above all, Momus considers himself a storytelling enterprise and is a devil for asking ‘what if?’

I chatted with Momus (by high-tech and transpacific means, naturally) and asked him about eleven different flavours of crisis.

Mid-Life Crisis: How are you liking your sixth decade on the Earth? Have you endured/enjoyed a mid-life crisis? If so, how have you used it?

Martin Amis said that after 50 there’s a “thickening out” of life: “There is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being”. He didn’t say what that presence is, but I guess he meant death. That’s definitely coming through as a presence in my new songs, but death has always been a presence in my songs. My midlife crises (I’ve had a few) tend to come in the form of affairs with women much younger than me. They generally turn out badly, but the resulting songs are good. That’s the thing about being a songwriter: even when you lose, you win.

Identity Crisis. Did Momus come fully-formed into the world or did you develop your artist identity gradually? What moment do you consider to be Momus’ birthday?

Momus was born in 1985. I needed an identity to use on Mike Alway’s newly-formed él Records. Momus did already have a ready-formed identity, in the sense that he was a minor Greek god of cynicism and mockery who was kicked off Mount Olympus. I’ve kept fairly faithful to the obscurity, astringency and outsiderdom of the original Momus, I think.

Existential Crisis. You have lived in different cities in different countries. Do you change personally with your surroundings or do they help to confirm your identity?

Taking on a new city is like taking on a new romantic partner: you’re attracted because of affinities, but there’s definitely going to be some negotiation and some alteration if you want to get on. It’s a nice feeling to know that you’re going to be changed in ways that you trust, ways that are limited and pre-approved. But you never quite know what the result will be. Who knew that moving to Paris would get me obsessed with America, and with computers? Or that my New York idyll would be cut short by a Saudi Arabian called Osama? Here in Osaka I’m surprised to find myself haunting the slums and dressing like the dossers there. I suppose what these things tell you is that place is only one factor: time is pretty important too, in the form of your own age and in the form of history.

Fashion Crisis: When will people stop wearing jeans? What are you wearing in the alternative reality where aprons and baggy hose are in vogue?

Jeans are clothes that make sense in the context of American 20th century dominance. If the 21st century becomes predominantly Asian, as seems likely, that signifier will get fuzzy. American hard power will linger on a few decades as American soft power (nostalgia, cultural influence) but fizzle by mid-century, I think. So I’d be looking to see different trousers taking over by about 2050. I’ll be 90. As for your parallel universe question, in that parallel universe I’m wearing an apron with a trompe l’oeil pair of jeans printed on it.

Artistic Crisis. What do you feel most contributed to your transition from pop music to literature?

Well, I haven’t transitioned. I’m still making music — I’m making a new album right now — but I now publish books as well. I use the Momus name for both my books and my records because I see it all as part of the same storytelling enterprise. I was always a “singing author” (literal translation of the Italian term cantautore, songwriter).

Energy Crisis. Are you optimistic about our gradual move towards sustainable energy resources? Moreover, do you think the west will ever embrace kuruma banare and, like Japan, become a post-car society?

It’s all there in the word “sustainable”. This is not really a matter of choice. The only variable is whether we embrace sustainable energy through wise foresight or after a series of crises. Right now, here in Japan, we’re in the middle of exactly such a crisis, with Fukushima. Let’s see how it turns out. As for cars, my feeling is that cars will turn into train carriages. Computers are doing more and more in cars; eventually they’ll take over all the driving functions. Increasing car numbers will lead to congestion, but computer control will allow cars to travel bumper-to-bumper, even at high speed. Eventually the cars will link up, and sliding doors and corridors will be installed. This will allow services (snacks, meals, drinks, batteries, massage) to enter cars, which are currently woefully bereft of them. The trainization of cars will come more quickly in societies (like Japan) where citizens trust each other.

Industrial Crisis. What are the current challenges facing the worlds of pop music and print?

I’m totally bored by the technicalities of this question — how copyrights and payments are administered in a rapidly-changing world, blah blah blah. What interests me is the kind of music and writing people make even if they aren’t going to be paid a dime for it. Especially in the incredible world where these people have a device which gives them instant worldwide publication, which is our world right now. Of course, it may be that the answer is that a de-professionalized media is one that produces mostly inconsequential work. In which case we’re back to square one: how to keep professionals in the picture by making sure they get paid. I actually think Apple is quite clever, and that the Apple Store is a good model if we want to keep copyright alive. But I also rather like the cowboy world of Piratebay. I’m happy for both those things to exist.

Global Financial Crisis. As a sort of futurist and a cartographer of alternative worlds, do you think we will come out of this recession differently to how we went into it?

I think way too much is made of really tiny incremental changes. Is there growth in the growth, is there shrinkage in the growth? Who cares. What matters more is stuff like Gini — the rate of overall equality in a society. A lot more attention should be paid to distribution of existing wealth, rather than percentile changes in growth rates. Overall, I think the scenario for nations like the US, UK, Germany and Japan is what I’ve called “aftergold”: how to control shrinkage — and expectations — in such a way that happiness and fulfillment take over from growth and wealth as the dominant values. At a certain basic income level (about $20,000) our basic material needs are taken care of. Income increases beyond that don’t really increase happiness significantly. It’s up to us to decide what’s important to us, and find the optimal point between work and fulfillment. This requires quite a bit of self-knowledge and self-control, though.

Crisis in Japan. Japan sometimes seems defined by terrible events: the bombs, the earthquakes and the 1995 gas attacks. You may even refer to this in your upcoming book, The Book of Japans. What do you anticipate will be the lasting effect of recent events (the natural disasters but also the way they have been dealt with by the authorities) upon the Japanese popular consciousness?

Japan has been having earthquakes and tsunamis for thousands of years: this stuff is already built into the cultural DNA. It’s led to a certain detachment from material things; nobody has a venerable old family house here, they rebuild totally every twenty or thirty years. It’s led to the outlandish scenarios in manga and monster movies. It dovetails with the detachment built into Buddhism. The Japanese are incredibly stoical. I was amazed by videos of the March quake, how calm the Japanese were as it happened, just holding onto valuables and waiting for the shaking to stop. It was the foreigners who fled: they call them “flyjin” — the gaijin who flew.

Crisis in objectivity. What is a crisis for the unreliable tour guide?

Well, being an unreliable tour guide has made me very aware of the power of spin. Even the word “crisis” is spin. I could give you a tour of a crisis and show how it was a totally benign natural evolution, planned for in every detail.

What crises would you most like to see in the world? What needs shaking up?

We need to move from American modes to Asian modes, and from capitalist modes to communist modes. And we need to stop using fossil fuels, and fighting wars because of them.

Categorised as Interviews

Renaissance Man: in conversation with Paul Bourgault

Originally published in Side Street Review

Paul Bourgault is a visual artist in Montreal. He usually works in collage and paints. Among his most recurring themes are those of Catholic and Renaissance iconography, and he often uses vibrant colour and sensuous imagery on his large canvases.

It is a privilege to visit Paul’s studio. Seven months previously, I’d been present at the opening of his exhibition Grande Consecration des Utopies Approximatives at Montreal’s Maison de la culture Frontenac and I’d seen a further collection of his works at the Toronto International Art Fair. On both occasions, his work had struck a chord with me, perhaps because of its imposing presence but perhaps because it reminds me of the closest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience, absorbed in the splendor of Renaissance art in Vatican City. I have a lot of respect for the works of Paul Bourgault and so being in his studio and paying witness to so many works in progress is both an honor and disconcerting. The dozen or so canvases propped up around the room are incomplete but each is unmistakably a Bourgault. Seeing them, I think, is like bearing witness to half-formed stars in the depths of a nebula.

The studio is a small space on the upper floor of a tall building. There’s a city law preventing architecture from exceeding the height of Mount Royal, so the view from Paul’s window is a rare opportunity. The island’s snow-covered east side stretches out before us: the domes and spires of Mile End and Roger Tallibert’s organic-modernist Olympic Stadium on the horizon. A wall of Paul’s studio displays a quote from a motivational speaker called Les Brown: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”. I suspect this was left behind by the studio’s previous occupant. Paul doesn’t strike me as aggressively ambitious: the act of creation is the important thing to Bourgault.

Paul welcomes me into the studio. After a tour of the canvases closest to completion (and one wholly incomplete, untitled piece that marks his pending transition from mixed media to pure painting), we crack open a couple of beers and our conversation begins.

I understand you were originally trained in film. Was it a challenging transition to go from film to painting?

When I started college in the mid-eighties, the art scene in Montreal—at least the art scene I knew—was not very open to certain types of painting or draftsmanship. It was more conceptual and installation[-driven]. I’m not saying it was the right decision, but it doesn’t take much when you’re young to intimidate you. Maybe I would go into studying art if I were to do it all over again but, you know, that’s impossible. I loved film but I was always more of a draftsman or a painter than a film expert or a film maker, so film was like an escape route. Also, I had very little interest in school, so film was interesting. It was one of those decisions of picking something that you’d like to do instead of making a smart decision with a specific goal.

Film brought me into working in sets. I was a scenic artist; a set painter in film, opera sets, television and television advertising. One thing I learned here was how to be efficient. When I do my own paintings—like any artist—a lot of my emotions and my vision of the world goes into it. When you’re a set painter, you’re almost like a painting machine, so while you have to reflect on the task, you don’t have to reflect on whatever the film maker is trying to convey. You only see pieces of it. You’re told ‘paint this barn’. You’re stuck with how to do it so there’s a lot of problem solving but you’re not asked to make decisions per se. So that was extremely useful. I did that for about ten or fifteen years at least.

So film gave you a kind of work ethic.

Yes! If you go on a film set, we agree that film is a true art form. As is painting, architecture, dance: there’s no doubt about it – that film is a true art form. Of course, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it, but when the film crew is working, no one stops to look at their belly button. This is costing us ten-thousand dollars a minute, guys, let’s go! So I did learn that. I’m not always as good as I should be or as disciplined, but I do have a strong work ethic. I think that film might have given me the attitude that you can be a creator and be on the ball. Creating doesn’t mean sitting down and waiting for stuff to happen.

To what extent is your work autobiography? Do you bring much from your heritage or your family background or your own emotional landscape?

It’s mostly autobiographical. Mostly in an emotional, spiritual and philosophical way. I’m quite sure that we have old memories stored into us. I don’t know how it works. I’m not a neurosurgeon or an expert but my gut feeling is that we have some sort of very long-term memories stored away somewhere in our brains: cultural memories. Because we’re all mixed, it comes from everywhere. Most of my heritage is French, but the French were conquered by the Norsemen by the Germanic tribes and so on.

And we all go back to Africa ultimately.

Yeah, that’s it. I do believe that. Another thing is being here in Québec where the Catholic religion had quite a strong presence. My mother was probably of the first generation, as an adult, to get rid of it as an overbearing presence. I don’t think that the church in itself is that awful but I think there is a problem when it’s overbearing. There’s a lot of reference to Renaissance painting in my work. I think the main reason is that I simply love those paintings and the work that went into making them, but also there’s a link in there to the Catholic church in Québec. So there’s this dual interest. Some of those [Renaissance] paintings are just so stunning. They still shock me when I go to museums. To complement your question, I think all of my paintings are to a large extent autobiographical. I don’t know that it shows or that it should show, but they’re all based on ideas or doubts or fears or experiences or points of view that are personal. Why is there so much information flying all over my paintings? Our minds are always at work, always stimulating and being stimulated, buzzing. Life never stops, the atoms and the planets turn. Physics and mathematics were one of the few things I liked at school. We don’t think about it because it would be burdensome to do so, but right now there are five billion people thinking, moving, talking, fighting, being born, dying. The cosmos is spinning in every which direction. Everything is in constant motion. I like that idea, that everything is alive, that there’s a force in everything and that it’s always moving.

Something I get from some of your paintings is this idea about excess and abstinence simultaneously. I’m thinking of your exhibition, ‘Carnival at Lent’ specifically.

One thing that Chinese painting has taught me is that the empty space in a painting is just as important as the rest of it. When Chinese painters do their work, they look at the lines [but also] the space between the lines. Life is all about oppositions. In that sense, my work [contains] what I believe about life. You live, you die, there’s space between things and there are oppositions between desires, like carnival and lent. What would be one without the other? If you’re doing carnival three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, it would lose its meaning. Getting pissed and dancing all night would become just a normal day. I don’t think it would be interesting or possible to do it six hundred days in a row.

So the whole universe is vibrating with opposites.

Yes, absolutely. And that’s an important part of what motivates my work; the idea of—the way your phrased it—that vibration, the emptiness. The universe is kind of participating in my creation. It applies to everyone but I think some people are more conscious of it or have accepted it.

You are bilingual and spent a long time in Ontario as well as Québec. I don’t know, but I imagine, there might be Francophone and Anglophone cultures of art in Québec. Is that true? And if it is true, do you feel that you exist between them or that you have one foot in both worlds or do you feel like a true third thing?

To a certain extent, every artist is out of it [and] working on his own. As far as the language goes, because it’s a super-touchy question, I’m going to answer like a politician. But real seriously, with globalisation and the Internet, we’re all connected. You can see in real-time, the paintings at an opening in Saigon. I’m not saying there are no differences but there are so many crossover practices now. If there’s a difference between a French scene and an English scene, it might be more in relation to human friendship. If you go to an English school, you have those friends and most of those friends will speak English. I’m not sure that it affects the art. We’re all mixed. It’s not like there’s a big wall between us with the French world here and the English world there. I think it’s more of a social networking difference more than an art difference.

I’m not a big part of any crowd. I mean, I go to openings and I have artist friends but I’m not really into some specific theme. It’s not, like, a scene.

Do you have any thoughts about government funding of the arts? It’s obviously good in that arts have to happen and we shouldn’t be starving as artists, but also, do you feel there’s a problem with being sanctioned?

Out of principle, I think that financing for the arts is a very good thing. We live in a social democracy and taxes should be invested in a general manner. Of course, education and health is Number One, but we all pay taxes and I think its good that artists can get a little pat on the back. Receiving a grant is good for you because it gives you time to work, time to stop worrying for a few months. It gives you a form of recognition, which is great, but making art is like a quest; you should never wait for someone to sanction you as an important motivation. I apply for grants and I think it’s smart to do so, but what wakes me up in the morning and what brings me [to the studio] every day has nothing to do with being sanctioned.

Tell me a little about your ‘Chasse-démons’ painting. It’s a personal favourite.

It’s a talisman. Everyone has demons: personal hurts and broken parts from adapting to society, from childhood, from disappointments we have about life. We all have some open scars. Maybe some people are more sensitive about these, so I had this idea of painting something that could help you chase away these demons. But I also painted it for myself. I figured maybe some day a man or a woman could say ‘yeah, I could use one of those talismans’.

I was reading a lot about the Bohemians recently. About Nineteenth Century Bohemians. They’d often keep a skull around the place, and it was like a talisman against becoming bourgeois. It’s like a constant reminder of death, that one day you’re going to be a skull in the Earth.

That’s very interesting. It’s a Memento-Mori. I collect art a bit. I only have small works, but usually, the work that I buy are Memento-Mori. For me, and this is strictly personal, art has to do important things for you. There’s no reason it can’t be beautiful but if all art were beautiful it would be useless. In my own work, there are often little details of skulls, bones, trash and stuff that looks like dead animals, and there are dead birds. I don’t want anyone to be ‘oh wow, dead birds’ because I like my work to be beautiful, colourful, sensuous, vibrant, but I like that in almost every piece there’s a little Memento-Mori: just a little something to remind you that you’re passing through. You’re just passing through. I think that life is beautiful. To have a little reminder of death is very important but only if you enjoy life. Dancing is great, food is great, sex is great, friendships are great, the sunset is beautiful. I enjoy life, but as you were saying about the Bohemians, to always keep a little something, like a little wink that says ‘don’t forget’.

Well, it’s what encourages you to live vigorously. Knowing that this is it.

Yeah! And it’s like the opposites of the universe, as we were saying earlier on. If we had eternal life and we know it, boy, we’d be fucking bored. We’d only be playing cards or something like that, you know.

Are there other artists whose work you draw from?

Many. And I’ve noticed as the years go by that I’m more and more open-minded. I was not as open-minded when I was a young adult. Of course there are many strong influences, like painters of the Renaissance, Rubens, Rembrandt , the use of colour in Vincent van Gogh’s work has inspired me a lot. Colour has a hell of a lot of importance in my work. For me, colour is like an emotion, it’s like energy, it’s like life. I don’t mean ‘red is this, yellow is that’, but the interaction of colour is a really magical aspect of painting.

But yes, Rembrandt especially. I’m not nostalgic, but I like old painting because it’s kind of out of time. I like to think that my work might also be somewhat out of time. I mean, you can’t truly become out of one’s own time, but I like not to voluntarily push it into it. You know what I mean by that? This might be a bad example, but I use a computer and I find lots of things about it useful so I’m living in my time. But I’ve never had a Twitter account and I never will have Facebook. It’s going too far. I can understand why some people want to use those tools, but for me, I like to keep a safe distance. You can tell that my paintings are being painted ‘now’, but I like to think they are happening out of time a bit as well. The references are hopefully a little timeless.

As a self-taught painter, I learnt what I know about art history and art by reading and going to museums. I go to the library a lot. When you’ve absorbed so much information, you’re in a sense influenced by all of that. You have favourites but it all just becomes part of you over time.

I saw a documentary recently at the [Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal] about Warhol’s protegee, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, in it, he said a lovely thing. He was asked how he is influenced by other people and he said “it’s someone else’s idea going through my new mind”. Going through my new mind. Isn’t that perfect?

Painters have always had affiliation: ideas that are inherited from father to son. If you look at the history of art, I think everything has been done through affiliation because every artist is inspired by and inspires his contemporaries and his friends. The Basquiat thing is very interesting and true because painters nourish other painters. You look at Bosch and Picasso and you mix and match and something weird comes out and you sprinkle something else onto it. I’m inspired by many, many painters so it’s hard to pinpoint now.

[One of your art dealers] told me that you now want to do more painting without using collage?

It’s a shift. Every work leads you to another work, like communicating vessels. Sometimes you make drastic decisions but generally you carry stuff with you. You bring maybe ninety percent of the last work into the new work. I’m trying to paint myself out of collage and I’m finding it a gradual process. A thing about art is that I have to avoid being comfortable. If I’m too comfortable and safe in what I’m doing, it doesn’t stimulate me. You can’t cut all the bridges: you can’t one day say ‘I’ll never paint like this again’ and paint like someone else. You can’t run away from yourself. A singer doesn’t change his voice in five minutes. It is done over years. But collage helped me feel a certain danger, a certain risk, to do things I wasn’t comfortable with. But now it’s turning into a comfort zone. I’m starting, with painting, to get myself out of that zone.


We talk for another hour or two about work ethics, stand-up comedy, long-distance walking, Canada, physics and space, while the unfinished pieces around us – the embryonic stars in the nebula – vibrate with potential energy. Paul Bourgault’s channeling of primal, atomic, and universal forces is the very reason for these paintings’ existing ‘out of time’. While human beings may benefit from a Memento Mori, these ideas remain eternally untouched by the currents of time.

Categorised as Interviews

The Rebel Dollar: Joseph Heath

Originally published in Side Street Review

As an artist, if I find myself thinking about economics, it is usually disparagingly. I’m not alone. For years, artists have rebelled against economics through parody in paintings, music, stand-up comedy and Turner Prize-nominated installation pieces.

Unfortunately, if we want to comment upon economics intelligently in our work, we have to know something about it. We can’t simply hate Capitalism because we sometimes have trouble paying the rent or because we have a vague idea that it’s bad for people in Africa. To hate something intelligently, we need better data than that.

An excellent guide for artists—and people who dislike finance generally—are the books of Joseph Heath. Joseph is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and writes popular publications on the subject of money. His most recent book is called Filthy Lucre: economics for people who hate capitalism. I meet Joseph to discuss the complex relationship between artists and money.

“The latest book,” he tells me, “is remedial economics for people on the left. Like me, many people got turned off by their first-year economics class and decided that the whole thing was right-wing ideology and didn’t have to pay attention to it. It happens disproportionately on the left, so we’re often weaker in economics than the right. In the first half of the book, there’s a lot of economic theory that actually undermines classic right-wing positions. In the second half, I show there are things said on the left that don’t make sense from an economic perspective.”

Like many academics now writing for popular consumption, Joseph strikes me as a highly accessible fellow: a man steeped in theory but able to discuss it with the layperson. What took Joseph from academic philosophy to accessible consumerism and economics?

“Consumerism is already a topic in philosophy. Philosophy has some elaborate ideas about consumerism. Sadly, a lot of these are based on fallacies about economics, such as the over-production fallacy: the idea that mass-production has generated an overwhelming surplus of goods and so we resort to marketing. Alas, it’s a fallacy because ultimately in Capitalism—despite the illusion created by money— goods are exchanged for other goods. It’s possible for there to be too many shoes or shares but impossible to be too many goods in general. Based on this fallacy, philosophers have thrown up elaborate theories on how the advertising industry manipulates people’s desires, makes them consume more and generates an homogeneity of desires. Lots of theories but it’s all based on an ignorance of economics.”

Another of Joseph’s books, The Rebel Sell concludes that counter-cultural movements have failed and that there’s no real friction between the counter-culture and the accepted mainstream. The rebellious fringes may actually feed Capitalism:

“Rebellion was advertised in the late fifties and early sixties as having revolutionary consequences with respect to the political and economic system. The book points out that [the counter-culture] didn’t deliver on any of those problems. Rather than being a revolutionary transformation of consciousness, it was just consumerism. Take the sexual revolution: people thought it was going to undermine Capitalism because, in the post-Freudian view, instinctive repression was required to get workers to show up at the factory and this was incompatible with sexual freedom. The sexual revolution was going to lead to a wild freedom in society that would make factories and the tyranny of the clock impossible. If you look at [the psychoanalyst,] Wilhelm Reich, you can see this theme prominently: that the sexual revolution was supposed to undermine the entire political and economic system. Looking back with forty years of hindsight and wisdom, the major consequence of the sexual revolution was [the feeding of] the pornography industry. It’s a classic example of counter-cultural rebellion failing to result in the collapse of the system and in fact feeding into the desire to consume more and more. People thought ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ was was going to be revolutionary in the way that, say, Marxism was revolutionary. They thought that it was going to emancipate people and fundamentally change things, that war would become impossible. To point out the obvious, it didn’t pan out that way. What’s striking is that everybody has recognised the total failure of these ideals but we’ve not rejected the underlying theory: that the political-economic system is a big machine and culture is the software, so by reprogramming the software you could fundamentally change the way the whole machine functioned. You still see it in contemporary cultural politics and art theory. It’s just that nobody has the radical pretensions for it that people had in the sixties.”

This strikes me as devastatingly defeatist but I’ve always been a dreamer. If the sexual revolution and rock ‘n’ roll—genuinely radical cultural forces—had resulted in the opposite of what was intended, what chance do small-time artists have in a world jaded by artistic rebellion? Should we hand in our pallets and brushes for white collars? Is there anywhere left for artists to rebel against money?

“A journalist recently wanted to interview me about Lady Gaga. Basically, he wanted to know whether the violent imagery in the Alejandro video meant the collapse of Western civilisation. I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, were you born yesterday?’ We live in a society that survived the Rolling Stones! The Stones were drug-using Satanists. The Stones and The Doors were the real deal, right? People thought it was mind-blowingly radical, that music industry would never be the same, that it was going to be Earth-shattering. But it didn’t quite work out. When I came along in the seventies, the Rolling Stones were already neutered. Already they were a joke in terms of rebellion. When punk came along people thought ‘Oh my God, this is the real deal now’, and its gone on and on. By now rebellion is such an empty gesture and so obviously a marketing gimmick, it’s astounding that anyone could think any kind of cultural event could have any significance on anything political or economic.”

At this point in the conversation, I remember a 2002 Adam Curtis documentary called Century of the Self. It mentioned something called the ‘torches of liberty contingent’: a 1929 women’s liberation movement in which hundreds of women marched on New York, brandishing cigarettes. There had been a perception in America that women shouldn’t smoke and so this was a hugely equalising demonstration. Equalising? Certainly. But the real effect was the doubling of cigarette sales. Tobacco companies got richer in the name of personal liberation. Are there other cases in which the corporation has exploited our senses of justice and rebellion?

“Sure. There’s the idea that Capitalism has to increase consumer desire to get rid of a surplus of mass-produced goods. Everyone is somehow threatened into wanting the same house, the same car, the same clothes and so forth. So the idea arose that by rebelling against mainstream tastes, you’re throwing a cog in the works of the industrial system. By refusing to live in the classic suburban home, by cutting your hair a certain way—all the standard counter-cultural gestures—you are exacerbating the crisis in Capitalism. This is the idea of the rebel consumer: that by smoking or getting tattoos or colouring your hair purple, you were striking a blow against the system. The consequence, however, is quite the opposite because rebellion becomes a positional good. The latest rebel style is extremely cool and attracts imitators. The people who want to rebel have to constantly search for the newest, latest thing. This generates competitive consumption and the quest for cool or the quest for rebellion winds up generating consumer desire. Rather than striking a blow against the system it actually ends up promoting consumerism. There’s the idea that rebel styles get co-opted by the system. But the co-option is completely an illusion. All that happens is once-exclusive things become popular. Once people start finding out and jumping on the band-waggon, it generates a snob effect whereby everyone has to get off the band-waggon. What looks like co-option is actually competitive consumption among individuals. But remember: none of this matters at all from an economic or political standpoint. Think of the fifty years of revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll, crap pop or whatever: it’s amazing that the system never collapses, but its because all this stuff is totally irrelevant.”

So what can counter-culture can hope for? Is there any point to being a part of a counter-cultural movement now? “No. I don’t think so. By now, the rebel gesture is so empty and so vacuous. Younger people don’t actually believe any of that. It’s just all been done so many times and the radicality got pushed to the point where there’s nowhere further to go. By the end of the twentieth century, radical music was politically exhausted. The most radical gestures are made already. I think best example is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music: the band started out revolutionary and underground, but when a bunch of frat boys started listening to it, the band immediately became mainstream. To maintain their underground credibility, they make another album of less-accessible music in order to lose fans and maintain cachet. You make your music more unlistenable as a way of restoring its exclusivity: you sell people an album of screeching noise. Like, that’s as revolutionary as it gets! And some people actually listen to it! It’s all a matter of exclusivity. I’ve sat through contemporary dance performances that were absolutely inaccessible and when people start to walk out, you can see the look of absolute satisfaction on everybody else. It’s just straight-up snobbery, right? It’s like distancing yourself from the great unwashed, from the people with mainstream tastes who lack true aesthetic judgement”.

Guilty, I explain that my favourite record is Captain Beefheart’s highly-inaccessible Trout Mask Replica: an album recorded under cult-like conditions with highly avant-garde results. I also remember how pleased I was when The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening announced it was also his favourite album. Me and Groening: two pretentious peas in a radical pod.

“When The Rebel Sell came out, a lot of old hippies were extremely upset by it, a lot of people our age—Generation X—reacted to it with ‘Oh, that’s really helpful. It’s something I kinda thought but never articulated,’ but anyone younger was like ‘Dude, tell me something I don’t know’. For anyone post-Internet, this is totally obvious. Stuff on the Internet gets co-opted overnight. It used to be that information moved very slowly. You could have a six-month lead before other found out [about the hip, new thing]. Growing up, a girl I knew would visit New York to check out [the nightclub,] CBGB. She would come back with a band t-shirt and she’d have the [scoop] on what was going on. This allowed us young punks to be cool for about a year because of the long lag. There was no MTV, radio stations didn’t play this stuff and albums were hauled around in trucks. Nobody could find out what was going on at CBGB, so if you got someone with inside intel, you were cool for ages before the ordinary folks found out about it. I used to feel that I was a member of an alternative culture and there was an essential difference between us and the mainstream. I realised later on that it was just a consequence of time lag: the delay in transmission of cultural information. Now, if someone puts something on YouTube, ten-thousand people are imitating it the next day. That’s why no young person was surprised by [the message of The Rebel Sell]. They’ve already realised it: there’s no such thing as alternative music. It took me a long time to figure out! I bought the whole thing, hook, line and sinker.”

So the standard rebel arguments are often just garden-variety inherited wisdom, which doesn’t need to be proliferated through art.

One point that I believe to be important, however, before we give up on rebellion, is that life without it is somehow hollow. Artists—whether musicians, film makers, performers or visual artists—have always gone against the grain or at least held up rebellion as a pretense for getting our blood pumping. There was never a song written about how the government have our best interests at heart and how the bankers do a great job. Without rebellion, sincere or otherwise, we’d never have seen The Wild Ones or Easy Rider or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We’d never have felt the love of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Bed In’. We’d have never experienced the punk phenomena of the Sex Pistols or Patti Smith or The Clash or The Fall; or felt the surge of naive adrenaline when absorbing the crimson ink of comic books by torchlight under the covers. Exposure to rebellious art will often leave the feeling of new neural pathways being cut, often painfully, through the brain and of new mental muscles being flexed. Something that disconcerts (the grotesque pornography of Jake and Dinos Chapman), challenges the way you perceive the world (Douglas Gordon’s ’24-hour psycho’ video installation) or rocks the boat of social norms (Mark Quinn’s ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, the sculpture of a pregnant quadriplegic, which stood beautiful on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in London) has surely more value than a work that simply confirms what you know (stand-up comedy by Michael McIntyre) or agrees with the status quo. If rebellion in art is an empty gesture and is ineffective against Capitalism, it is still the best way I know for art to feel like the result of independent thought and in favour of a beautiful, vigorous life, which goes against the grain.

It’s also important to remember that artistic rebellion doesn’t only go against Capitalism. Artists can rebel against unethical government policies, animal cruelty, environmental collapse, racism, poor public amenities and infringements upon our human rights: things that bring shame upon every one of us if they go unaddressed. It is not direct action but through rebellious art, we can generate a discourse around these things and heighten public awareness. Art can be the conscience required to temper the crimes of governments and individuals and the corporation. If an artist intelligently and opaquely rails against (for example) the war in Dafur or low standards of living closer to home in the US and Canada, it can be the spark required to ignite mass comprehension and ultimately mass action.

Personally, I wonder if the counterculture’s failure to derail or temper Capitalism is not a failing of rebellion intrinsically but that the counterculture has simply been rebelling in an unproductive fashion. Thanks to Joseph Heath’s observations, we now know that rebellion has backfired and lead to the stimulation of rebel desires and the identification of a rebel market. With this knowledge, perhaps artists should strive to create a non-marketable, non-profitable commodity and promote, through this, a form of anti-consumption. If art could successfully manufacture an anti-product: something which could neither be bought or sold with money and didn’t rely on further extraction of materials from the Earth, could we not exploit the rebel desire without the rebel dollar? Could we not appeal to people’s rebel instincts and desires for a better world without selling them the t-shirt? Can we not create a kind of ‘outwardly projected hunger strike’ to discourage the unnecessary consumption of material products? When will the truly minimalist home (ascetic as opposed to designer) become fashionable? When will empty space be perceived as the next luxury good? I think, if any rebellious artistic movement can affect Capitalism, it lies here. We now know that the acquisition of haircuts and records and magazines—what Heath described to me as “the standard rebel gestures”—only serves to fuel the system. If we want to properly throw a spanner into the works of Capitalism, we’ve got to pull our funding and stop consuming these empty symbols of a fake revolution. That is the message of this rebellious artist. Now, where’s my commission?

Categorised as Interviews

Poly Styrene

Originally published at Verbicide

Legendary punk front woman Poly Styrene has cancer and is reportedly too weak for chemotherapy. Three months after diagnosis, however, she is promoting her new studio album, Generation Indigo, from a hospital bed while nurses administer a miracle drug called Herceptin. It is from this bed in a British coastal town (very near to Hastings pier, where she first saw the Sex Pistols perform and famously said, “I could do that”) that Ms. Styrene grants us a short but upbeat interview.

Alongside Laura Logic, Poly Styrene came to popular consciousness while fronting the iconic punk rock band X-Ray Spex. The only criticism that can be leveled upon this amazing group (important in the history of New Wave as well as pure punk) is that they didn’t produce enough work. Two archetypal studio albums and two live recordings have left fans desperate for more. Parallel to her work with the Spex, Poly has enjoyed a solo career, starting in 1980 with her album Translucence. Putting aside the heavy and grubby punk guitar of the Spex, her solo work tends to be gentler, jazzy, and inspired by her spiritual outlook — Poly was initiated into the Hare Krishna movement in 1983 and lived as a devotee in their temple for several years.

The latest installment to the Styrene canon is Generation Indigo and its first single, “Virtual Boyfriend.” “I just wanted to do something that was very current and that was about modern relationships,” Poly tells me in regards to the single. “There wasn’t a lot of thought. It channeled through me and just happened.” The narrative of the new single concerns technology and our relationship to it: “Human contact is necessary, and we need to be careful we don’t lose this and its importance.”

The new album is produced by Martin Glover, perhaps most famous as “Youth” from post-punk kings, Killing Joke. “It was a pleasant experience [working with him] and we got on. He works pretty fast and so do I, so the pace was familiar.” Poly Styrene is often cited as the original feminist punk icon. What are the challenges for feminism today?

“I don’t think there are any challenges anymore. Just the over-sexualization of women, but that’s quite small in reality. I’m in a hospital at the moment and all the nurses are women and they’re lovely. In the media they’re portrayed in a different way, but just like the nurses I’m talking about, the majority of women are out there being themselves. Women are quite caring and nurturing and that’s good. If that’s feminism then there should be more of it.”

I ask the question to which we’re all nonchalantly hoping for an affirmative. Will there be a future excursion for the X-Ray Spex or perhaps a release of older, unheard material? “I’m not sure at the moment, as I’m concentrating on this album and also on getting better. There are some early recordings that haven’t been out there yet… maybe one day in the future it will be released.”

I think Verbicide speaks on behalf of all the fans when we wish Poly a speedy recovery.

Categorised as Interviews

Status Anxiety and Bohemia: Alain de Botton

This is a very short excerpt from my interview with Alain de Botton. The interview can be read in its entirety in Issue Five of New Escapologist.

Employment often seems at odds with the happiness and internal values of the individual. Must it always be this way?

There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time – and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…’

The strangest thing about the world of work isn’t the long hours we put in or the fancy machines we use to get it done; take a step back and perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the work scene is in the end psychological rather than economic or industrial. It has to do with our attitudes to work, more specifically the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy, that it should be at the centre of our lives and our expectations of fulfilment. The first question we tend to ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were, but what they do. Here is the key to someone’s identity and esteem. It seems hard to imagine being able to feel good about yourself or knowing who you were without having work to get on with.

It wasn’t always like this. For thousands of years, work was viewed as an unavoidable drudge and nothing more, something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religious intoxication. Aristotle was only the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living. Holding down a job, any job, was akin to slavery and denied one any chance of greatness. Christianity added to this analysis the yet grimmer conclusion that the misery of work was an unavoidable consequence of the sins of Adam and Eve. The idea that work could be fun, as opposed to simply useful and necessary, had to wait until the Renaissance to get any traction. It was then, in contemporary biographies of geniuses like Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci, that one gets the first glimmers of the idea that doing extraordinary work might be better than lying around as an idle aristocrat, indeed, that work might be the highest of blessings. A more optimistic assessment of work as a whole had to wait until the eighteenth century, the age of the great bourgeois philosophers, men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, who for the first time argued that one’s working life could be at the centre of any ambition for happiness. It was during this century that our modern ideas about work were formed – incidentally, at the very same time as our modern ideas about love and marriage took shape.

In fact, there were remarkable similarities between the two realms of love and work. In the pre-modern age, it had widely been assumed that no one could try to be in love and married: marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons, to hand down the family farm or ensure a dynastic continuity. Things were going well if you maintained a tepid friendship with your spouse. Meanwhile, love was something you did with your mistress, on the side, with pleasure untied to the responsibilities of child-rearing. Yet the new philosophers of love now argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with rather than just have an affair. To this unusual idea was added the even more peculiar notion that one might work both for money and to realise one’s dreams, an idea that replaced the previous assumption that the day job took care of the rent and anything more ambitious had to happen in one’s spare time, once the money had been hauled in.

We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married ­- and in a job and having a good time. It has become as impossible for us to think that you could be out of work and happy as it had once seemed impossible for Aristotle to think that you could be employed and human.

Categorised as Interviews

The Great Escape: Tom Hodgkinson (with Neil Scott)

This is a very short excerpt from our on-stage conversation with Tom Hodgkinson.

The interview can be read in its entirety in Issue Three of New Escapologist.

Tom: I’ll go back to when I started the Idler magazine, which was in 1993. The reason I started was because I left university and I was beginning a career. I had had one year working in a record shop called Rough Trade in London. I’d met a whole different crowd of people; these people were skateboarders. It impressed me as a very creative scene, full of autonomously functioning individuals. There were people running their own club nights and tprinting T-shirts and running fanzines and magazines and playing in bands and there were DJs. No one actually had any money, but no one seemed to have a job. And it was great to meet such people here, who were coming from a completely different and a less academic background, but who seemed to be much more free and more spirited and were grabbing their life with both hands — much more than I was — because I was sitting in the shop all day.

So that was one thing that began to open out: the fact there might be work outside of the conventional. I think I had the idea for the magazine a couple of years later, when I was working on the Sunday Mirror magazine. I had got the job kind of by accident — fifty pounds a day as a researcher for three days a week. I thought this would be good; I could do my own stuff at the same time. I found myself being made thoroughly miserable by the culture of the office, which was later well portrayed in The Office. I was too young and new to get involved in the politics, but there was something about these offices: the boss was made into a petty tyrant and we were humiliated daily and one day I’d be asked to, sort of, write a short article, which, itself, was actually rubbish, as it was a terrible magazine. One of the editors would come by and go “coffee run, coffee run, coffee run, Tom, Tom, coffee”. So, we had to go and get the editors their different kinds of coffees. I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t stand the commute every day.

I was always late; I was probably a very bad employee. And I was also very bored for long periods of the day. I had been bored at the shop, but it was a little different, because people came in and we were able to hang out. But if you started, sort of, chatting to your neighbor in this office, then the editor would tell you, “I want to see heads down, heads down,” and just enjoy, sort of, putting people down. It’s really very humiliating; I felt so depressed.

Neil: Okay, Rob. The latest issue of your magazine is about the practicalities of escape. I was wondering if you could tell us how you got to be producing this magazine and to be expressing these ideas and what you think are the practical ways that people here tonight can take to get to where they want to be.

Robert: Well, the practicalities edition is not actually released yet. The War Against Cliché Issues is on sale tonight. The practicalities one will be a little bit different, but, yeah, we can talk about that for a bit. I think, as Tom was saying, the 9-5 work system does not work. It doesn’t make anybody happy and it also fails in terms of production as well. I mean, do a lot of people here have officy kinds of jobs?

The audience responds with an unenthusiastic ‘Yeah’.

Robert: (Laughs). See, you cannot muster the energy to be enthusiastic – even ironically – at working in an office 9-5. The bottom line is: if you work in the office, probably about 80% of your time is spent doing not very much. So, even from the employer’s or the bureaucrat’s perspective, it’s probably a very inefficient system. It fails on both sides. It doesn’t make the worker happy, we don’t make enough money, we are not respected, and, frankly, it doesn’t work. We produce inferior products and inferior services that probably don’t really matter, especially if you work in something like marketing.

I worked as a librarian for a long time, but I ended up working in an office again. Librarianship is one of those careers that was, perhaps, a trade, once upon a time, but it is becoming kind of deskilled. They outsource a lot of the skilled work, so now librarians end up in offices, either at the back of an actual library or there is no physical library at all and they offer electronic services. And that’s basically where I ended up: it was somewhat dissatisfying, not because I fetishise books or the ideas of a library to a huge degree, but I just felt that the cornerstone principles of librarianship aren’t being met anymore.

So, to answer the question about the project’s history, it came about when I was reading two books simultaneously: one about the life of Houdini and also one about the rise of Bohemianism around the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Buy New Escapologist Issue Three for the complete conversation (and other issues) here.

Categorised as Interviews

For the advanced minimalist: Leo Babauta

Originally published at New Escapologist

Leo Babauta is the founder of the Zen Habits website and books and (more pertinently to this post) the website, Mnmlist. His sites have thousands of readers. I caught up with Leo by email and asked him a few questions for the advanced minimalist:

Q: After minimalism, do you find yourself treasuring the things still in your possession or do they weigh upon you as stubborn things that wouldn’t wash away?

Leo: I don’t think about them much. The things in my possessions are just things. They are there because I need them, not because I love them. I have a T-shirt because otherwise I’d be cold, not because it’s beautiful and gives me joy. Going outside and playing with my kids gives me joy. Minimalism is a way for me to let go of thinking about things so much.

Q: Do you feel that digital entities (mp3s, eBooks etc) constitute clutter in the same way that physical objects do? Should we try to save virtual real estate as well as physical space?

Leo: A few years ago I moved from organizing all my files into folders, to forgetting about them and using search to find what I need — this includes mp3s, documents, emails. Search eliminates the need to organize, though you can purge if you’re using up too much space.

More important than worrying about digital files is being aware of digital buying. If you buy things mindlessly because it’s easy — apps, music, movies, ebooks — that’s mindless consumerism. That’s something you should become aware of.

Q: I converted to minimalism as a personal preference but I find myself thinking more and more about the green benefits of reduction. How relevant is the environmental issue to you?

Leo: It’s at the heart of minimalism. Environmental problems have become so overpowering because we have let corporate consumerism become more important than how we treat each other, how we live with nature … than living in general. Minimalism is striking back against that. When you let go of corporate consumerism, you let go of the need to overconsume, to buy horrible amounts of things and waste so many natural resources.

Categorised as Interviews

Genealogy of the Joke: Ian Macpherson

Originally published at British Comedy Guide

Some jokes get chanted like mantras in offices and playgrounds across the nation. Others, like trees toppled in empty forests, will remain unuttered forever in a lazy comedian’s scratchpad.
Some jokes achieve immortality in popular parlance. Others die peacefully in their sleep.

Just as a punchline is always remembered while a feedline is always forgotten or garbled, we know a lot about the various fates a joke can come to but so little about their births.

I decided to investigate the birth of a particular joke. Not a joke about actresses and bishops overheard in a pub; not a toilet wall anecdote about Princess Diana getting stuck in a lift with a monkey; but a nicely crafted opening gambit that has become the stuff of legend among stand-up comedians.

The joke has been passed on like an unwitting baton from comedian to comedian. In July 2008 I used it myself. I had first heard it from Richard Herring. In turn, he had first heard it from Stewart Lee. Stewart Lee was probably referencing Malcolm Hardee, who – as rumour has it – stole it from someone else.

‘Someone else’ transpires to be the great Ian Macpherson. He lives three streets away from me in Glasgow so I popped in for a visit. He made me a nice cup of tea and a poached egg. We did this interview:

So you definitely wrote the joke? When were you first using it?

I first did the joke at the Earth Exchange in the early eighties…

“They say you play the Earth Exchange twice in your career.
Once on the way up.
Once on the way down.
Great to be back.”

The first two lines on their own are not that funny, but there I was faced with 150 vegetarians baying for blood. The punchline was an ad lib born out of terror. It just popped out. It was a great opener at venues like the Red Rose Club, King’s Head in Crouch End, Banana Cabaret and so on, and for some time afterwards it carried some of my – how to put it? – more esoteric stuff. It used to fool them into thinking I was funny while I spent the next 30 minutes tinkering with their brains.

How did Malcolm Hardee come to use it?

Malcolm Hardee came to use it by nicking it. Simple as that. And, as he’d done it on some pap-for-the-masses TV programme, it looked as if I’d nicked it off him. So I had to drop it. He also put it about that he’d bought it from me. Which he hadn’t. He then offered to buy it retrospectively. “Fuck off, Malcolm”, I quipped. So I fined him a pretty modest sum for theft. I was pretty furious about it at the time, but he had his eye on other stuff I’d written, so I was also warning him off. He ignored the fine at first, but he was just about to open Up The Creek, so I gather some comedians refused to play there till he paid up. Which he grudgingly did. I also made it plain in words of one syllable that I was not, repeat not, selling the line. He muttered something about 6 seconds of material but, as I pointed out, “It was 7½ seconds, Malcolm. You should have nicked my timing.”

Have you heard any other comedians using the joke?

Arthur Smith told me I’d written the most stolen line in British Comedy. Not bad for a middle class white boy from Dublin. But no, I’ve never heard anyone do it on stage. Simon Munnery told me he does it, but attributes it to me. Which is fine. No problem there. Good man Simon. I was told that Simon Fanshawe did it on radio. No attribution. I wrote to his agent at Noel Gay Artists 3 years ago for a clarification but he must be a slow typist. No response as yet. But not everyone is called Simon. I’ve now got back to the standup after some years of writing the obligatory books, and it seems that various people have been paying homage to my more accessible stuff. I mean, how much homage can one man take?

Does this piss you off?

A young film maker contacted me last month. Apparently he’s doing a documentary on Malcolm Hardee. Wanted to know if I wrote Malcolm’s gag. Malcolm’s? Apparently some of the older comedians who’d first seen me do it had told him it was mine. Anyway, he intimated they would be using the TV clip of Malcolm doing my gag and, er, was I okay with that. And maybe it was the Irish blood coursing through my veins, but my response was a good deal less than civil. “Listen,” I said. “You people stole my country. I’m fucked if you’re nicking my act.” Does that answer your question?

Er, yes. So you don’t subscribe to the theory that it’s dissolved into popular culture?

You write a song, you get the credit. You write a play you get the credit. You do comedy and somehow it’s different: You go off to write the Great Irish Novel and suddenly you’re Anon. I’m not Anon. I’m Ian Macpherson. Thank you and goodnight.

Categorised as Interviews

Fuck the mall: Judith Levine

Originally published at New Escapologist

The polar ice caps are melting, war is rife, natural resources are running out by the clappers and poverty is most definitely not history. Humanity’s ecological footprint is 23% larger than the planet can handle in terms of regeneration: as a species, we’re consuming far too much. While New Escapologist wouldn’t want to point its beautifully manicured but nonetheless accusatory finger in any particular direction, your personal shopping habits probably aren’t helping things.

In 2005, journalist and author, Judith Levine decided to stop shopping. After a particularly stressful period of Christmas shopping and coming to the realization that over-consumption is precisely the thing that is destroying the planet and making everyone hate America, she decided that enough was enough.

New Escapologist: Most people know the answer to this these days, but in a nutshell, what is wrong with our current consumptive habits?

Judith Levine: We consume too much. Our consumer products use too many resources to produce, ship, and run. They obsolesce quickly, so we’re forced to throw them away — or we tire of them quickly and throw them away before they’re used up. And they aren’t biodegradable or we cannot or do not recycle them.

NE: I can’t stand shopping. I find it a real stress: the hard lighting, the crowds, the fact that the items you lusted after in the store seem cheap and pointless when you get them home. Yet other people seem to love it. There’s that term, “retail therapy”, which to me seems really odd. “Depressed? Buy a CD!” I don’t understand that relationship. What do you think the attraction to leisure shopping is?

JL: You’re shopping in the wrong places. There are many lovely things to have, which look and feel just as lovely, or even lovelier when you get them home. Plus, shopping distracts us from other troubles — and who doesn’t want to be distracted from time to time? This week, I’m in the midst of a terribly anxiety-producing medical test. I keep saying to myself, thank god for shopping.

NE: It’s been a few years now since your ‘Not Buying It’ experiment. Do you think you’ve escaped (or minimised) your desire for ‘stuff’?

JL: I never have had a big desire for ‘stuff’ — and since ‘Not Buying It’, even that desire has diminished. I just know I’m as happy without it. My weakness, however, is experiences: movies, theatre, food. While I’ve learned what I can live without, I also learned what I can’t live without. Ice cream is one of them. And each time I go to a movie or the theatre, I realize how much I enjoy it. Cutting down on consumption has all the obvious environmental advantages. But a less-remarked result is that buying less intensifies the pleasure you have in the things/experiences you do buy.

NE: ‘Not Buying It’ had something of an anthropological flavour to it, which I feel adds to the book’s integrity. Was it strange to examine your own culture in such a way? Did you feel at all ‘divorced’ from your culture when examining it so closely?

JL: Yes, and this was both an interesting and at times a troubling experience. I am often writing from the position of critic — always, in fact — so I am always, in that sense, an outsider. But the consumer culture is so pervasive. Once you’re outside it, you feel you are outside everything! Advertising becomes a kind of heiroglypic you find yourself decoding. You (or I) feel judgmental of others (and, in my case, fight against that personal judging). You feel superior, but also lonely. Not seeing the latest movies or reading the latest books puts you on the margin of conversations with friends and neighbors, indeed, outside of virtually the only shared social experience we Americans have.

NE: There have been a number of other ‘challenge-orientated’ studies since the turn of the millennium. Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’ and Dan Kiernan’s ‘I faught the law’ spring to mind. What do you think has been the effect of these?

JL: There are a number of copycats of my book too, including “No Impact Man” (see the website). I think there’s a way that people misinterpret them. To me, these are a kind of ordeal art, an experiment in extremism in order to understand the ordinary. People often think you’re advising them to do the same: go cold turkey. That would be like telling someone who wants to lose weight that she should stop eating altogether. There can be another paradoxical effect of this ordeal art. No Impact Man, who doesn’t take the elevator and is foregoing toilet paper for the year, gives people the impression that you have to be crazy to try to do anything about global warming. If you focus only on personal behavior, and the personal behavior is bizarre and masochistic, most people will throw up their hands in despair. Without talking about politics, you leave out the most important “something” that people can do: behave as activist citizens — agitate to change policy.

NE: Some readers may be familiar with your earlier works. I personally found ‘Harmful to Minors’ to be real tour-de-force stuff but there is also ‘My Enemy, My Love’, a book about contemporary masculinities. So you’ve covered the big two: sex and shopping. What do you think you’ll turn your journalistic interests to next?

JL: I have a fourth book too: Do You Remember Me? A Father, a Daughter, and a Search for the Self, which is a memoir of my father’s dementia and our family’s dealing with it, as well as a critique of the medicalization of aging — that is, the idea that aging is not a stage of life, but a disease. To me, all these things are connected: I’m interested in the ways that the big forces of culture, history, and politics are expressed in intimate life. Consumer culture has an increasing effect on how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to each other, socially, politically, sexually, familially. Now I’m casting around for ways to talk about the intersections between consumption, sexuality, and aging.

NE: What’s the future of the human race? An optimistic world of green energy and intellectual freedom or the total rape of Earth’s resources followed by a Starbucks-funded escape to Mars?

JL: As the daughter of communist (idealist) Jews (pessimists), the message I got was, “We’re going to make a perfect world, Gott villing, vee should live so long.” My motto is Gramsci’s: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I’m skeptical, critical, dissatisfied, and sometimes so depressed and terrified I have a hard time getting out of bed. But my way of dealing with it is to be an activist. More and more people are figuring out that we have no choice but to take drastic action to save our poor Earth. Like every other environmentalist, I just hope enough people wake up fast enough. But the policymakers won’t wake up without our shouting fulltime in their ears.

Judith’s book Not Buying It is available from bookshops and public libraries. Her website with blog can be found at www.judithlevine.com

Categorised as Interviews

On escapism, conservation and amusing typos: Dave Till

Originally published in New Escapologist

Welcome to Findhorn, a seemingly unremarkable little town in the highlands of Scotland. But slightly north of the main town lies the Findhorn ecovillage, which (like Glastonbury’s Festival and Roswell’s ‘incident’) has surely become more famous than the original namesake. To save the bother of a very long drive, New Escapologist caught up with long term Findhorn resident, Dave Till. While you’re stuck in that horrible office all day, Dave is looking after Findhorn’s publicity campaign and writing and performing poetry. Take that, society.

New Escapologist: What do you think is the main thing to bring people to Findhorn and other egovillage-type (sic) settlements? Do you think it is because of a positive quality unique to them or because of a negative quality possessed by regular city life?

Dave Till: Egovillage? I love that idea! Perhaps that should be the next project – forget co-operation and go for the purity of a self-centred approach. Anyway to answer your actual question I think people come to ecovillages because of positive qualities held by them and also to escape negative experiences in the city. i.e. a bit of both.

NE: When an individual becomes a resident of Findhorn, how do they contribute to the community? Does one take out a mortgage or pay a rent or do things work more like a commune where everyone works on community to make their contribution?

DT: Some people have mortgages (though God knows they don’t get them based on the low income up here), some people pay rent, some people get their accommodation as part of their work. Things are very varied now – much more like a real village. In the early days, everybody came and was resident and got their board and lodgings in exchange for work. There was much more of a communal feel then I think. However most people who work here also contribute to community rotas like washing up and cleaning the guest accommodation. Even the managers of the Foundation. For those people who live here but don’t work for the Findhorn Foundation there is the community association – the NFA (New Findhorn Association) – by which they can plug into the community in a more formal way.

NE: What do you think the general naive perception of Findhorn might be? Do people tend to find the notion romantic/appealing or is there a fear of otherness or eccentricity to contend with?

DT: People who hug trees, talk to flowers and have resident Nature Spirits. Some people find that notion romantic but I find it rather twee and annoying – like being stuck inside a permanent re-run of Finian’s Rainbow with only Tommy Steele for company. However life here is thankfully not like that. There is certainly a fear of otherness and eccentricity found in the region and the community has trouble in being taken seriously by the neighbours. But again things change. The community has been here almost 45 years and no matter how wacky you are, familiarity creeps in. Our local (Moray) Council has invested money and time in the UN-sponsored Ecovillage training so we get more and more acceptable as time goes on. The local SNP MP pops in every now and then too. Someone recently tested out our carbon footprint and found it to be the smallest in the whole of the UK (though God knows how they work that out) so that gives us a fashionable claim to eco-worthiness. Also the community is an NGO (non-governmental organization) with the UN and has been for a while, so we do have international recognition too.

NE: Tell us about the whiskey barrel homes [pictured left]. They strike me as excellent innovations!

DT: Yes – houses of spirit. An enterprising American , Roger Doudna, long-term resident here, went to the local distillery and found out they were selling off the huge oak vats that they use to store the whisky. He was zany enough to see their potential as the building blocks for circular homes so now one corner of the community is made up of these special dwellings and very nice they are too. All the walls are curved so there is no way you can buy your fitted units from IKEA.

NE: Findhorn ‘products’ such as your books and onsite courses are very interesting but there is something I’ve always wondered about them: are they a necessary evil in order to generate revenue or is this sort of activism genuinely pleasurable and a part of your credo?

DT: Personally I manage to do without the books completely without any reduction in my quality of life. After a hard day of community toil I seldom sit down with one of Eileen Caddy’s books, I’m much more likely to read the Film and Music section of the Guardian. The courses generate the largest source of revenue for the place and they do seem vital and an essential introduction to community life – especially Experience Week but it has been a while since I’ve done one. However they pay my wages so I’m not knocking them.

NE: I’m very interested at the moment by the concept of ‘voluntary similcity’ (sic). Would you describe life at Findhorn as voluntary simplicity?

DT: I love these typos. A similcity sounds like an online community or something. Life at Findhorn is seldom simple. It is complicated and challenging as a village emerges from a more basic community. The ethos is simple I guess but the challenges are varied. We all live in challenging times and Findhorn is no exception.

NE: What can New Escapologist readers do to embrace the Findhorn spirit without leaving the city?

DT: Buggered if I know. Get up here you lazy bunch of stay-at-homes. You can even fly to Inverness though of course we don’t encourage it because of the carbon issue. It’s funny that these days, no-one here likes to be seen either at the airport or at the local Tesco but of course both are frequented. I use a false beard.

NE: What do you think the modern western lifestyle lacks most?

DT: A viable alternative to both capitalism and communism. A non-religious set of spiritual practices. New community models. An escape from both advertising and spam.

NE: Got room for another gentle anarchist out there?

DT: We are not very anarchic but gentle people do pretty well. Out there?? It’s not somewhere in space – we’re not far from the A9, close to Baxters Soups – civilisation is nearby!!

Categorised as Interviews

Best Days of your life: Kim and Jason Kotecki

Originally published in New Escapologist

GunsboyIf you feel as though you’re taking yourself to seriously, have forgotten how to have fun or simply don’t have time for mucking about any more, you’re probably suffering from a bout of ‘Adultitis’. Help is at hand as Kim and Jason Kotecki – authors of a forty-step Escape Plan – show you how to flee the world of electricity bills and mediocrity, and return to the innocence of childhood.

New Escapologist: What are the main things we can learn from childhood?

Kim and Jason: There are eight “secrets” or qualities that all children posses. These are things that can get a little rusty as we grow older. Some of the biggest things we can learn from childhood are the ability to slow down and appreciate the little things in life, to dream big again and to renew our natural curiosity.

NE: You’ve interpreted maturity as an illness. What makes you see it as one?

K&J: Maturity is not necessarily an illness, but taking yourself too seriously can be a problem. We like to differentiate the differences between being childish and childlike. We don’t think people should start paying their bills with Monopoly money and mucking around with Play-Doh all day. But we think getting back to a more childlike attitude is important.

NE: So what’s the cure for Adultitis? How can we escape the shackles of being an adult?

K&J: There are many ways to counter the effects of Adultitis. Anything you can do to get yourself thinking and acting in a more childlike way will help. Our entire web site revolves around the idea of giving people tools to do just that. Our most ambitious project has been the Escape Plan.

NE: The Escape Plan is described as the first ever ‘experiential blog’. What does that mean?

K&J: Basically, an experiential blog (or xblog) is a blog that inspires active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill. You might think of it as a community self-help or how-to blog.

It’s different than other blogs because it invites active involvement from the reader in the experience, beyond just responding to what the author has written.

An experiential blog contains the following elements:

1. It has a finite number of posts, each of which constitute a specific step towards a stated goal.
2. Community is created by readers (voyagers) who share comments on their experiences.
3. It is written by an individual or team of sherpas, who lead the experience and guide voyagers in the journey.

NE: What has been the response? Have many people taken up your challenges?

K&J: The response has been quite good. Jason has had a chance to talk about it during his speaking presentations. People have loved hearing about some of the ways we’ve solved various challenges and are inspired to do the same. Quite a few people have been doing the challenges, and people from all over the world have taken the time to post their adventures online.

NE: You completed all of the challenges yourselves, of course. What do you think were your most notable escape plan adventures?

K&J: Well, we’ve done many of the challenges several times – it’s really something that can be done over and over again and you get different results. Some of our favorites have been when Kim celebrated the first “Hump Day” of the year by making camel shaped pancakes and getting her picture with a camel at the local zoo (Challenge #2 – Instaparty: Find a reason to celebrate and do something to celebrate it.) and Jason was pretty excited when he made green eggs for breakfast as a part of Challenge #24 – Outside the Lines: Figure out a way to add some color to your day in a new, unusual, or wacky way.

Lately, we’ve been filming some of our escapades as part of Escape Plan TV. It’s a new project we’ve started since we do so much travelling. In a soon to be released episode filmed in Colorado Springs, we had a chance to feed some giraffes with our mouths.

NE: A lot of people have trouble with taking the first step in an escape plan. The survival instinct makes it difficult to leave comfort behind in favour of adventure. What’s the best way of setting out?

K&J: Yes, the desire to stay firmly in our comfort zone is a powerful instinct, and a breeding ground for Adultitis. The good news is that the Escape Plan is unlike a diet or new workout routine; it’s actually fun! If someone is having trouble getting motivated, we recommend doing the Escape Plan with a friend. You can hold each other accountable and have fun sharing how you’ve each decided to solve each challenge.

NE: You have a book out called ‘Escape Adulthood’. Which came first, the website or the book?

K&J: The comic strip we do and its characters started everything. Then, Jason wrote Escape Adulthood as a way to really fine tune the idea of what it means to be more childlike. Then we cooked up the Escape Plan and the corresponding website in an effort to come up with a tangible system to help people deal with their Adultitis.

NE: There is something to be said for a guerilla approach to art and your website seems to have embraced this. You have developed an industry around yourselves by developing your own comic strip and your own videos. Is there a particular secret to getting noticed when you “do it yourself”?

K&J: We are both big fans of Seth Godin, author of Unleashing the Ideavirus and Purple Cow. His ideas have been a big source of inspiration. Basically, we’re just trying to be ourselves, have fun, and create a remarkable experience. We try and make it easy for other people to spread the idea of [the] Kim & Jason [canon]. We’ve tried many different things – some of which haven’t worked very well – and are not afraid to experiment with new technology. One cool thing about the Internet is that it gives you access to so many people. In many ways, it’s a great equalizer. However, it still takes a lot of effort to network with people and get the word out, but the Internet makes it much easier than it ever was before.

NE: We always seem to be running from something or to something. We want to quit our jobs; we want to quit this city. No one seems happy with where they are these days. Why do you think people are so bent on escape?

K&J: People look for meaning in life. They are disenchanted and fed up with the stuff we’ve all been fed through the media and the advertising of big corporations. There’s way more to life than chasing after the next big thing, “keeping up with the Joneses”, and buying “stuff” to make us happy. Children have a built-in purity, wisdom, and happiness that we often overlook and that is definitely worth tapping into.

NE: Finally: what one piece of advice would you give to the world on how to live a fulfilling life?

K&J: Don’t take yourself so seriously. Take some time to slow down and appreciate the little things. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. And finally, be yourself. Be the person you believe you’re supposed to be (and what that looks like is different for everybody). That’s really the only way you’ll be truly fulfilled in this life.

Kim and Jason Kotecki run the Kim and Jason website and comic archive from www.kimandjason.com. The escape plan can be found at http://www.escapeplanblog.com. Jason Kotecki’s book, Escaping Adulthood is available from Amazon.

Categorised as Interviews

On wanting to stay alive: Stewart Lee

Originally published at TMCQ

Robert Wringham meets Stewart Lee

Arriving at Crystal Palace’s Cafe ABC after a long journey down from Glasgow, I was surprised to see people smoking at the tables and around the bar. Of course, the ban was yet to reach London but I’d become accustomed to smokers – Scotland’s out-group of the moment – being huddled in the streets while everyone else enjoys the no-longer-filthy indoors air. It was weird then that Stewart Lee and I – two ex-smokers – were asked to take our conversation out into the midnight gutter. Some people are just born to be outsiders.

Mr. Lee, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is the writer and director of the controversial Jerry Springer – The Opera and has been a veteran of the stand-up circuit for some twenty-five years. His comedic persona has developed something of a Maharishi-like status among younger comedians and his subversive, self-referential style is not easily emulated. To the current generation of twenty-somethings, he is probably most famous for his TV work with Richard Herring: twelve episodes of Fist of Fun and eighteen of This morning With Richard Not Judy, but he also writes witty novels and reviews for national press. Oh, and he’s a DJ. And a DVD director. And he’s said to have invented Alan Partridge.

Are you sure you’re happy doing this out here? It’s a bit nippy.

“Yeah, no problem. I like to have a mooch around before I go on [stage] anyway. This is nice.”

How do you feel when looking back on your TV work and early stand-up?

“It’s a mixed bag of emotions, actually. I’m very pleased with all the stand-up, I think, and I still like the first series of Fist of Fun. We tried something different for series two for various reasons. There was a slight change of tack, only I don’t think it worked too well. I’m quite proud of series two of This Morning With Richard Not Judy, which was a show that took a while to become established and get off the ground. The stand-up is weird. Generally, I look back at my early stuff and see a cocky, arrogant, surly young man. And then get all nostalgic. [Laughs].”

Your comedy often has a subversive edge. Do you set out to subvert?

“No. No, not at all. You just write what you’re interested in. I don’t think any of us [try], even [Jerry] Sadowitz or Chris Morris. They just do what they feel works at the time. I think it’s a bit desperate for a comedian to deliberately engineer subversion: it should really just be a by-product of what you’re doing. It’s not in a comic’s professional interest to be controversial. The promoters and venues are less likely to work with you if they think you’re going to be a pain. If you earn a name associated with mischief, it’s not going to work in your favour. I’ve had a lot of stuff blow up because of that. The management at the BBC is weird: even if all the middle managers love a project but the guy at the top smells a rat, it’s still not going to happen.”

Is that what happened to your Cluub Zarathustra* project?

[*Cluub Z was an alternative comedy cabaret co-founded by Stewart Lee in 1993, based around the principal that traditional stand-up be avoided in favour of other, stranger, more inventive ways of performing. In 1995, a TV pilot was commissioned with Lee and Simon Munnery at the helm. But it was never rewarded with a series.]

“No, that was Channel Four. It’s a different situation there, mainly a budgetary one. But all that stuff was channelled into different projects anyway, like a show we did for the BBC called Attention Scum.”

I was going to ask whether you were a rebel by nature or not, but you’ve already sort of answered that.

“I’m really not. But people in broadcasting are difficult. You’ve had it if they just don’t like your tone of voice.”

Do you have a favourite comedy club in which to watch comedy or perform?

“A favourite venue? Probably The Stand, actually in Edinburgh. It’s very intimate and focussed upon comedy rather than having it as a sideline of something else. ABC here is nice too, of course. [Laughs].”

Who do you currently most admire on the circuit?

“Hmm. Can I give you a list of names? Simon Munnery, Josie Long. I think Kevin McAleer has really peaked. Daniel Kitson. John Hegley, of course.”

You’re connected to John through Simon Munnery, of course.

“Yeah, that’s right. He’s part of the same comedy family, if you like. Though he came along much later: I first saw him perform in Southport near Liverpool in 1990. It was a John Peel session featuring John Lee Hooker. I was about 22. I love his work. Hegley has a certain style that I love and think really works. He sees things from this unique point of view and maintains this sense of public indifference. [Laughs]. He’s made a career out of that style, I suppose. It has a certain solvency to it.”

Comedy was important in the satire boom of the 1970s and in alternative comedy in the 1980s. Can it still be important and interesting and subversive enough to change things?

“Things have just changed so much in comedy since then, but I think so. The tone of voice unique to alterative comedy in the 80s has become the voice of XFM and radio one and advertising. It has this slightly detached, smug cynicsm. Comedy has become heavily commercialised: where there were once twenty comedy clubs there are now sixty plus lots of other places with one-off comedy nights. There weren’t as many open mike nights or open bills back then though, which is an area one can’t deny is progressive, but it doesn’t really function as an outside entity any more: it IS popular culture.

“Alternative comedy is mainstream now. I don’t know what the new alternative comedy is – there’s no new tone of voice. There’s The Book Club of course, which is very important but it is hard to find anything that is genuinely ‘underground’. There’s very little now to really identify with in the way that we did with alternative comedy back then.”

What do you reckon will be the name for the current comedy zeitgeist then? Post alternative? Post-9/11?

“I dunno. Not Post-9/11. That mainly goes down in America, which is full of guilty liberals. [Laughs].”

While an atheist, did you consider your trip to the American South-West a spiritual mission?

“Yeah! Absolutely. I think the shaman-clown hybrid is the perfect substitute for religion. With comedy, you can cheer people up and then ask questions. Comedy tends not to oppress: it’s very inclusive.”

On the subject of inclusivity, your comedy refers to itself a lot and to comedy devices generally. Is it important to have a particularly comedy literate audience for this sort of material or can you use it anywhere?

“I’d like to do that less, actually. Though it’s never not worked. It was a bit of a problem in America, I guess. It’s not that the American audiences I had weren’t comedy literate but a lot of the time they just don’t know what you’re talking about because their world view is so horribly limited and fed to them by Fox News. Self reference is just a way of referring to the world, so they just don’t get it a lot of the time.”

[At this point, a member of the house band comes outside to tell Stew that his play-on music is going to be “the imperial march from The Empire Strikes Back.” As the door is opened, I can hear Josie Long on stage and I wonder if Stew is annoyed at missing her set. He doesn’t seem concerned though.] Why do you suppose he chose the Imperial March?

“[Laughing]. I have no idea!”

Talking of that sort of thing, are you enjoying the new Dr. Who?

“You know, I’ve not seen it! I’ve been out of the country. But from what I’ve heard it looks okay. I always felt it was a show that suffered a lot due to decisions at the BBC. They were constantly axing it in spite of popularity and its originality. I suppose it’s a good example of a show that can really take off when it’s given decent production values and proper respect for its subject matter.”

What are you reading right now?

“I’ve just started reading a biography about [jazz saxophonist] Sonny Rollins. It’s very good.”

You often like to juggle a microphone and a cigarette. How are you going to deal with the smoking ban in Scottish clubs?

“I’ve quit! I quit on February thirteenth. No – fifteenth. I’ve been enjoying things a lot lately and decided that I actually want to stay alive. Three years into Jerry Springer [The Opera], I started to think seriously about pensions and stuff: it’s been a long haul so I have to live long enough so as to get the payout. It’s gonna take longer than I thought as well: the DVD didn’t do as well as I hoped and they’re not going to put out a second one. So I have to stop smoking for the sake of longevity. I’ve put on two stone though since I quit smoking which isn’t good! But I’d rather get fat than get cancer. [Laughs].”

Ah, but obesity causes cancer too.


You pretty much did the direction yourself for the DVD and you directed the Johnny Vegas DVD as well. How do you feel about that medium? Do you think stand-up comedy is an ephemeral thing or does it translate well to DVD?

“Well, it’s always better live, obviously, just as music is. But it depends on how it’s filmed. For example, on a lot of these DVDs, the director shows you the comic and then cuts to the audience laughing. It’s important to get some audience shots because they’re a component of the whole thing but cutting and chopping around like that can really break up a rhythm. With Johnny’s DVD – which I wasn’t completely happy with – I tried to get it all on a flat plane with the audience laughing in real time. Otherwise, it just feels confused and it’s as though the director is daring the viewer to join in. It’s best filmed live and with a bit of thought.

“I did both my DVD and Johnny’s at The Stand [comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow]. It’s good to do set these things in difficult situations.”

Difficult situations? [I recalled that the Johnny Vegas DVD was set in the quasi-fictional wake of Johnny’s gross selling out as a comedian and that Stew’s was shot shortly after the controversy over Jerry Springer – The Opera].

“Yeah, it’s just that these places aren’t designed to have things filmed in them. Anything could happen, especially when you’re recording live. You need that risk element: for it to be possible that something can be lost. I mean, it’s a real event and you could easily fail or get booed off. I loved that we chose Glasgow to film the DVD, actually because I basically went up there and insulted Scottish people and their heritage right to their faces: it would have been very easy to get booed off with that so we had that sense of peril that made it a real stand-up event rather than something set in a studio – which can be very sterile and have no sense of atmosphere – or something with an audience so big you can’t really tell what their reactions actually are.”

I actually had a friend with me on that night who was both Gaelic and Gay!

“And he was okay with all that stuff?”

Yeah, fine.

“You know I did some gigs on [The Isle of] Skye and the Orkneys?”

Yeah, you seem to be a fan of doing stand-up in unconventional places. I’m sure you said in an interview [on ITV’s Des and Mel] once that you wanted to do a gig on an oil rig.

“That’s right yeah. You get a different audience and so you get that sense of peril and unpredictably. It no longer seems staged.”

Is there a new tour planed or a new project at this year’s [Edinburgh] Festival?

“No. I’m not keen to do Edinburgh this year. It’s been a very long year, actually and a lot has happened. There’s talk of a series though: a Stewart Lee stand-up series, which’d be great. I’m working on getting another book deal because I’ve written a second novel. So I’m touting manuscripts around for that. And I’m pitching film ideas as well: a comedy superheroes thing called American Justice and a thing about the Napoleonic Wars. I’m basically just trying to stay alive out there. [Laughs].”

You must be able to depend upon your past work though to counterbalance being such an awkward customer. Kids of my generation were watching Fist of Fun when we were twelve and now we’re old enough to write these articles about you and stuff.

“Yeah, that’s spot on. People who took to Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy are all journalists and promoters now or working in radio. It’s very convenient. [Laughs].

“I’m just happy not to have done anything dreadful. While I’m marginally ashamed of some of the old stuff and wouldn’t do a lot of that stuff now, at least I’ve not done a ‘We Will Rock You’. I mean, Hegley and Sadowitz have never driven anybody away: as long as there’s a loyal body of fans, each giving you £7 a year, you’re okay and you’ve still got some integrity. It’s like one of the bands I like – The Fall – they do well because of a good fan base and having no promotion fees.”

Nice one. I think I’ve got enough to work with here. Can I get you a drink?

“Yeah, okay. I’ll have a pint of the beer.”

As we head back into the cafe, Josie Long is just finishing up. She introduces Stew and he makes his way to the stage. Strangely, there is no imperial march. “So,” he begins, “I recently had the opportunity to interview Ang Lee.”

Categorised as Interviews