Bas Mantel spoke with G.W. Sok about replacing your head with a football, translating the abstract into the concrete, the autodidactic connection between his graphic design and lyrical work and why he will always want to go for a swim in words.
When something triggers a thought for a lyric, I try to approach the subject from a different angle, to show different aspects, give it a little twist or make it more like a poem of some sort.
At the moment, you are currently on tour again and back in the bus that brings you to your performances. Who are you with on tour? Can you describe the view when you look outside?
I am on tour with an Amsterdam-based trio called Kanipchen-Fit. Drums, guitar and two vocalists. Pretty good band, really. Punky, funky, soulful feel with catchy melodies and clever lyrics. I did some artwork for them recently and I’ve known the guitarist for about 30 years. When he mentioned they’d go touring France and Spain, I said I wouldn’t mind coming along to try doing some kind of spoken-word stuff. I’ve never really done anything solo in English, so in a way, It’s an experiment for me to perform with voice only without being backed by music.
So here we are, on the fourth day, somewhere between Marseille and Barcelona; we just passed Montpellier. A busy six-lane highway on each side with wide views of low trees and grassy plains. It’s almost cloudy, or more positively said, almost sunny, and not as cold anymore as when we arrived in France three days earlier.
I remember a photo taken by Robert Frank that I have admired for a long time and find inspiring to this day. It’s a very exciting and graphic picture in which not much apparently happens. The photo was taken in NYC; it is a photo in which 4/5 of the overall size shows black asphalt with a white stripe in the middle. A line that leads your eye upwards where there is apparently a crossroad. At the top of the photo, 1/5 white gray light, silhouettes of people on the way and meeting at that point. Do you have an image, photograph or painting that is important to you? In what way does that image moves or inspire you?
I can’t say that one specific photograph pops up straightaway. But, an image that regularly appears in my thoughts and which always makes me laugh is a photomontage by John Heartfield.
I think it’s from the period that he and Georg Grosz worked for/at the same magazine sometime in the 1920s. It is a photo of a soccer player in full action, cut out and stuck on a plain background, while the player’s head is replaced by a massive football, and underneath there is the text: Jedermann sein eigener Fussball, or “Everyman his own football.”
Heartfield’s work was a big inspiration for me especially during my early years with The Ex. His photomontage works showed the evils and dangers of fascism years before the rest of the world even started to understand slightly the devastating impact of Hitler’s ruthless rise to power.
But this football montage is from much earlier. It is funny and yet at the same time already says something about Heartfield’s own beliefs — being against competition while being in favor of collaboration and equal sharing, and yet realizing that, of course, it won’t be so easy to make this a reality. But let this not keep us from pointing out the unfairness of the distribution between wealth and means.
Robert Frank once said, about his photography, that he’s always trying to identify what is true by looking outside while trying to look inside. But maybe nothing is really true except what’s out there. And what’s out there is always different. How does your creative eye and mind works when you are looking to the world around you? Can you describe how you translate these observations, experiences and findings into lyrics?
When we started The Ex as a punk band, we wanted to comment on the things and events that happened around and with us. And these were the 1980s, with the struggle for social housing, anti-militarism, underground culture, stuff like that. We didn’t see our points of view reflected in the regular media, so we considered our collections of songs as a kind of alternative “magazine” as a part of the counterculture media. The lyrics were observations, statements and anecdotes, of which we attempted to give a poetic, humorous touch.
Nowadays I try to be less black-and-white and add some more color, so to speak. I want to focus more on positive things instead of what I am against. At the same time, I don’t want to simply state the obvious. Less statement-based, more storylike.
So when I look at the world around me and something triggers a thought for a lyric, I try to approach the subject from a different angle, to show different aspects, give it a little twist or make it more like a poem of some sort. It also always needs to have some humor somehow. Without any humor, lyrics feel dead to me.
Is there a relation between being a graphic designer and being a poet and lyricist as well? Is it an advantage for you that you have both talents? How does this graphic part of you reveals itself in your lyrics?
I’m not sure if my graphic skills and my writing are connected. What they have in common is that I am self-taught in both. Other than that, when I write, I don’t think in a graphical way, and vice versa. At least, I am not really aware of it if I do. But once I put the words on paper, like when I work on the layout of my texts in the pages for a new book, then I try to shape the texts in such a way in the design that they give the reader indications of how to read them. The same text can be read in many ways, and sometimes I want them to be read in a quite specific way.
I like words, to play with and to paint with, to chew on words and lines, to phrase them and rephrase them until it all falls into place. I’ll go for a swim in the words.
When you put words of your choice under a microscope to examine them, what image do you see? Tell me in words.
I see words that are connected to lots of other words; sometimes meaning more or less the same, sometimes totally different. Certain words have so many different meanings, and if I want to say something very specific, I always want to use the words that describe it the best. Or I want a word that rhymes with other words, or I want words with the same meaning having the same first letter, or… or… or… and so I look at the words from different perspectives… definitions, rhymes, synonyms, et cetera.
They can all help me find the right ingredient for the story I’m working on. And sometimes they’re just snippets, word crumbs, littery letters, which can all be useful as they can fire my imagination at any time.
Could you draw or design that image for us?
I think not!
I don’t play any musical instrument other than my own voice. And I like words, to play with and to paint with, to chew on words and lines, to phrase them and rephrase them until it all falls into place until it fits. So I’ll go for a swim in the words. That’s where I feel at ease. Even when it isn’t always easy. For I am no “jukebox writer.” Putting a coin in and text coming out — that’s not how it works with me. But I do like the actual search for words, the not knowing where you’re going until it’s (somehow) showing. You dive in and you trust that you won’t drown.
Could you describe in detail the most beautiful voice you have ever heard?
The easy answer would be: no
but then again I could say yes
for I guess this voice is a kind of milky blue
almost anew, and smells of velvet sun rays
with a touch of timid air that is
arriving from the sighing trees
which are meanwhile kissing
flows of missing honeybees…
I have selected a list of five film titles for you. Could you write a synopsis for these titles?
Young, blonde, kinda out-of-luck type of girl suddenly finds herself on top of the world as the Goodlookin’ Cookin’ Queen of Kingstown. And there’s an offer hard to refuse. But, if she can’t stand the heat, what’s she doing in the kitchen?
Galaxy of Terror
In a future world years and years from now, the main activity of society is to sit and consume virtual reality TV programs… and there is no escape. Or is there? Let sleeping dogs lie, the saying goes, but when TV host Bippy T. Boppy accidentally blows a fuse, a quest for the truth starts running… out of control.
Flat-earth scientists set off on an expedition to unfold the edge of the world. All goes well, until they take one fatal vital wrong turn and life’s dirty secrets reveal a terrible secret well-hidden in the bowels of civilization.
A creepy doctor injects stupid people with a serum that makes them really clever. Well, at least that is what these stupid people think. In reality, they get drugged and become very obedient slaves. Until one youngster, too stupid even to realize her own stupidity, finds the antidote. Or perhaps, instead, the antidote finds her?
A bunch of adolescents rent an old-fashioned aeroplane and start organizing peeing-from-the-sky contests for students. So in case you were wondering: no, that is no yellow snow that is coming down on you from 20,000 feet above you.
In an article about his “cut-up technique,” William Burroughs told a story:
“When you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, you find that some of the cut-ups in rearranged texts seem to refer to future events. I cut up an article, written by John Paul Getty, and got: ‘It’s a bad thing to sue your own father.’ This was a rearrangement and wasn’t in the original text, and a year later, one of his sons did sue him.”
Have you ever written predictive texts, texts that have been written down as fiction and became reality?
That doesn’t happen too often, really. But the text that does come to mind is the one called “Town of Stone” from the album Dizzy Spells. It was some kind of comment on the cultural and economical developments of cities like Amsterdam. It contains the lines “No chance to wait for things to change, unless buildings get hit by planes.”
These lines basically referred to a disaster from years earlier, when a jumbo jet crashed into a 20-floor apartment building on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Dizzy Spells was released in June 2001, and three months later, 9/11 happened — while we were actually in a plane ourselves, heading for the United States. Yes, it did feel a bit weird to sing these lines in the first few months after the event.
Curated by: Bas Mantel
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: April 6, 2018
Total questions: 10
Word count: 1835
Reading time: Seven minutes
adolescent, aeroplane, Amsterdam, anecdote, Anton Corbijn, apartment, aspect, Barcelona, Bas Mantel, belief, chew, cleverness, collaboration, definition, disaster, distribution, doctor, Don Van Vliet, football, France, G.W. Sok, Georg Grosz, highway, honeybee, humor, identification, impact, John Heartfield, jukebox, jumbo jet, kitchen, lyric, Marseille, montage, observation, perspective, phrase, place, positivity, refusal, rephrase, rhyme, Robert Frank, serum, Spain, spoken-word, statement, story, subject, swim, synonym, The Ex, thought, trigger, twist, wealth, William S. Burroughs
About the curator
Bas Mantel has worked as a graphic designer for music magazines, record labels and cultural institutions since graduating from HKU in 1998, He works with various media, from print to stop-motion animated movies. His graphic design is characterized by the combination of old-school skills combined with modern technological techniques. Bas Mantel runs also the small record label REV. LAB. Records, which finds its inspiration in electronic, ambient, experimental, cinematic and abstract soundscapes.
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