Alec Dartley spoke with Barry Andrews about why anything exists, whether dinosaurs were made of rocks, the sculptural genius of fish and building objects from river detritus.
If you had to encapsulate the whole of this unlikely and multifarious universe in one image, why not a plastic troll from the 1970s?
Yes, exactly so. There is a philosophical essay by a bloke whose name escapes me at the moment, I’ll find out.
Who’s that doggie in the background?
That’s Woolsy the lean hound.
He’s so cute!
Yeah, he is quite cute. Right now he’s trampling over my garden, though. Agh, get out of there, go, go! He thinks cuteness allows all things with him. Indeed, at times it does.
We have a hound-type dog ourselves. She’s a Catahoula Leopard Dog. How about the image on the cover of your latest album? It’s unusual — a small troll floating in space. Another cosmic reference?
I sort of liked the idea of dealing with these enormous themes, but in a shitty way, like a bad self-help paperback you might pick up at the market for nothing. My approach to these things, if it all comes down to just one thing, if you had to encapsulate the whole of this unlikely and multifarious universe in one image, why not a plastic troll from the 1970s? That’s it. That’s the human condition right there.
You can put the penguin on an enormous ice float, but the ice float will be kind of green like crème de menthe or Kryptonite.
That seems to give a lot of perspective about how small and maybe insignificant we in the larger scope of things.
Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s a great line in Martin Amis’s book The Information in which he goes through this litany of stuff about the universe and what a solar wind is and how many battle ships a solar wind can throw through the air without even thinking about it, and the distance in the universe, and then he says “No question about it, the universe is high-style. So, then, what are we?“ Then he goes on to say that pretty much everywhere in the universe wants to kill you, so that then is the position of the universe in regard to human life.
Oh man. Wow.
Have you heard the crazy theory that we may be living in a simulation that our future ancestors made? So, we are simulated minds rather the original ones?
That’s quite upsetting, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. I’m out here having mystical experiences making paintings in the forest and it would be sad if it were all simulated. Do these ideas come up in your songwriting?
No, it’s kind of a meta title. A box in which all these things go. I prefer those titles, and usually, it’s good, although you do write from one place, I guess. When you’re doing a record, it’s very rare that you find everything coexists to illuminate one theme. The only time we’ve ever done that is with Sacred City, which is kind of a concept album, if you will.
How about synesthesia? I’ve read you you can see sounds as shapes, and know you make sculptures as well. Do physical shapes help you help you make sound, and do sounds inspire shapes?
I guess it does. I won’t claim to to have the actual thing, synesthesia, where you see it and it’s just there in your head. We often do visualize in the studio that the guitar is some kind of a penguin. It’s got a sort of a penguin quality to it, and you can put the penguin on an enormous ice float, but the ice float will be kind of green like crème de menthe or Kryptonite.
That’s quite easy to realize musically if you have that image in your head. I guess the first time I started thinking about that was while I was listening to dub reggae on a big system. That bass is like a great big whale and that little wood block is like a tinny round sphere that’s just pulsing there, shining in the brighter bits of the water. But then there are other things down in the deep. Music can be a bit of an aquarium.
Yeah. You make sculptures and furniture as well?
I used to. I had a six-year hiatus from music in the late ’90s after we recorded a record called Naked Apes and Pond Life where everything suddenly turned incredibly democratic. I felt I wasn’t getting my jollies, really. Everything had to go up for discussion and I was getting less fun out of it. I had less control over what the thing sounded like. It really pissed me off in the end.
We had just made a film for Sacred City and it involved a lot of 3D business-building things and collecting scrap and bits and pieces of things out of the river down on the Thames at low tide, coming up with a load of bones and bits of urban detritus and building it into things. I was getting more fun out of that than going into the studio to argue with the boys again. The logistics of it were getting more difficult, so I said “Fuck it. I’ll just make things! I can make things!” So, I had a little holiday where I just made things. Plus, it was cheap.
I suppose in those days, you still had go cap in hand to the record company to see if you could get a few hours in the studio. And that was getting more and more wearisome, so to go down to the river bank and the builders shop and see what you make out of things just seemed incurably inspiring and a fun thing to do. I got more and more into it and started to make furniture for people. I got a few commissions and thought I could maybe make a living out of this. So, I went to university to learn some of stuff you have to learn so I would not have to reinvent the wheel time after time.
I did all that for about six years. I don’t anymore, really. The closest to messing about is in the garden. I did find that once I was doing that, I did not want to do music anymore. It really was an either/or thing. After that, I really enjoyed music in a way I had not in years because it ceased to be just something I did myself or something I had to worry about. “That’s quite an idea, oh, maybe I can do that idea, maybe feel that idea, yeah! — it ceased to be that. I could be welding away, listening to Bach or Patti Smith or whatever, having a whale of a time.
And now that I’m back to doing music I don’t do any other sculpture at all. Again, it’s an either/or situation.
I do get my jollies out of crafting the thing there on the laptop before I send to the chaps. It becomes a genuine collaboration rather than some kind of painful group therapy.
Has making music been inspiring and fun again?
Now, with technology and being able to write on my own, I do get my jollies out of crafting the thing there on the laptop before I send to the chaps. Then, it’s kinda fun. They add their parts and it becomes a genuine collaboration rather than some kind of painful group therapy.
You’re known as a lover of reptiles. Can you talk about that?
Well, that does keep coming up.
Do you currently live with a reptile?
Ah, no, no. I wouldn’t want one as a pet, It’s the same thing with fish, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s become a bit of a Shriekback meme — fish and reptiles. I did once, for a time back in the ’80s, have a pair of carp in an aquarium. But the glamour went out of it when I had to clean their tanks. They smell rather bad and they’re always getting diseases.
I like the platonic idea of fish. Similar with reptiles, they would die on you pretty quickly if you don’t take care of the heat and their insect requirements. I like the shape of them, sculpturally; I have since I was a kid. I mean, kids get into dinosaurs. I think a lot of it has to do with the incredible variety and beauty of their shapes.
Yeah. They were, like, part rocks. And we have fingernails. It’s all really weird.
I remember learning about the Triceratops as a kid with its huge three horns. It’s like a rhino on steroids. And Stegosaurus with all the plates on its spine? God, that’s brilliant! These things actually existed! So, for most kids, that’s just “Oh, come on, really? Where can I get more dinosaurs?”
Curated by: Alec Dartley
Conducted by: Phone
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: August 2, 2018
Total questions: 14
Word count: 1408
Reading time: Five minutes
Alec Dartley, Bach, Barry Andrews, beauty, Catahoula Leopard Dog, collaboration, creme de menthe, detritus, dinosaur, discussion, essay, image, insect, Kryptonite, laptop, League of Gentlemen, logistics, London, Martin Amis, multifarious, Patti Smith, penguin, philosophy, plastic, plate, reggae, reptile, requirement, river, rocks, Shriekback, sphere, spine, Stegosaurus, synaesthesia, Thames, Triceratops, troll, universe, unlikely, urban, variety, Whale, XTC
About the curator
Alec Dartley is a painter and sculptor working from The Palisades in New Jersey. He received his BA from Parsons School of Design in 1995 and was later awarded a Skowhegan residence. He was born in 1973 in Englewood, New Jersey. Alec is also the founder of Aagoo, a record label for emerging musicians.
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