Michael Gillette talks illustration, Britpop and the joys of San Francisco with Justine Frischmann

The interview is an extract from Gillette’s excellent new monograph, Drawn in Stereo, which chronicles his work going back to the 90s.

Michael Gillette first worked with Justine Frischmann when she was frontwoman of Elastica in the 90s: during this period he created videos and sleeve artwork for the band. In this wide-ranging interview the duo discuss how he first got into art, the 90s music scene in London, and why everything is shiny in California…

Justine Frischmann: When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?
Michael Gillette: My mum was an art teacher so art was in the air, but it was discovering music that really kicked things off. The BBC played all the Beatles films Christmas 1979; I remember watching Magical Mystery Tour in my cub scout uniform [thinking] “What is this?” By the end of the season it was as if I’d been reprogrammed; I never wanted to wear a uniform again! I’d seen another way to be. That’s when I started to play the guitar. Art and Music started to hold hands, become all important.
J: It was probably unusual to have a Beatles thing in the 80s when you
were a teenager?
M: They felt more vital than what was going on at the time. I was just obsessed with them. They were a blueprint to life, a great cultural gateway. I discovered so much through them.
J: What else really stuck with you?
M: Well, the San Francisco poster scene—I got a Rick Griffin monograph when I was a kid. I really loved that book; it gave me my first idea of San Francisco. I now live in the neighbourhood where he had his 60s pinnacle—the attraction was that strong!

Top: Kurt Cobain, Little Angels, 2002; Above: Centrefold magazine, wraparound cover, 2010
Top: Kurt Cobain, Little Angels, 2002; Above: Centrefold magazine, wraparound cover, 2010
Whitney, 2012 and Amy, 2011 in spread from Drawn in Stereo
Whitney, 2012 and Amy, 2011 in spread from Drawn in Stereo

J: It seems that your work has a nostalgic edge.
M: It comes from those early primal inspirations; they were all 60s rooted. I am a recovering nostalgic I would say. I see now that the goal is to be absolutely present in this moment in time. I didn’t like the 80s much. It started out well but by ’85, it had got so awful. Jingly-jangly indie was the alternative and it was attempting to be 1966! There were a lot of us turning our backs on the 80s. I was living in Minehead by then.
J: Where is Minehead?
M: In Somerset. The middle of nowhere. At 16, my family moved from Swansea to a seaside retirement town, with a Woolworths selling the Top 40. A real backwater, it gave me a gnawing feeling of being out of the action. Before that, in Swansea, I was well into my teenage weekend routine: visiting record shops and going to music stores to try out guitars.
J: So, you were in Minehead, and there’s nothing but the Top 40 on the radio; you managed to get yourself to London at that point?
M: I did foundation in Taunton—still in Somerset—which was great. There were loads of bands there. PJ Harvey came out of that scene. I thought, “Wow, I’m going to London and it’s going to really kick off.”

Spread from Drawn in Stereo
Spread from Drawn in Stereo
Spread from Drawn in Stereo showing Gillette's studio wall, 2015
Spread from Drawn in Stereo showing Gillette’s studio wall, 2015

J: So you managed to get into London, to Kingston, to do … ?
M: Graphics; well, it had a sort of split graphics/illustration course. I didn’t really know what graphic design was, and finding out was a rude shock! I went into complete stasis and didn’t do anything.
J: What was it?
M: Cutting up type and making slick, horrid 80s packaging—by hand! I can’t do anything without a grotty thumbprint in the middle of it. It was tedious.
J: Did you think you were going to be designing posters?
M: Yes. I went on a pilgrimage to see Vaughan Oliver at 4AD in my first year at Kingston. He broke me out of my slump. I went back to school and made collaged pictures with type all over them. I’ve always made pictures with type. I didn’t fit into graphics or illustration; I was in no-man’s-land. Then, towards the end of the second year, the band started to fall apart; my enthusiasm for being in a group died…. I admitted to myself that I had more potential as an artist.
J: So at that point you felt, “I better get good”?
M: By that time I’d woken up. I’d made a choice to go to art school; making art made me happy, so make art! I felt I was better off creating my own projects with enthusiasm, tapping back into what I loved: music. I carried on regardless of what was said at college; it really is the most important lesson I learned.

Odd Futures, Esquire, 2014
Odd Futures, Esquire, 2014

J: Do you feel like at that point you had a vision of what it could be that was sustaining.
M: No.
J: I don’t know though because it seems like there’s a unifying vision, a kind of mainstream nostalgia, a sweetness that … it’s a vision of—I’m going to say beauty because that seems to be the best word even though it’s loaded, but it’s just this kind of view that’s pulled you along. I feel like it was visible in your work the first
time I saw it in the 90s, and it’s still there.
M: Well, thanks for spotting it!
J: Well, I just wondered if that’s the thing that ultimately pulls you along.
M: I do love making my work, and I’m happy for it to be beautiful amongst other things. I’ve been lucky enough to carry on making it, you know, very blessed. I need to make art, fundamentally as a therapy. It’s meditative. There were people at college who had way more talent than me, but they were happy doing something else. I wasn’t. So that has spurred me to keep creating. I need to do it: financially, emotionally, you name it.

A Hairy Tale, 2006 in spread from Drawn in Stereo
A Hairy Tale, 2006 in spread from Drawn in Stereo
Film posters by Michael Gillette in spread from Drawn in Stereo
Film posters by Michael Gillette in spread from Drawn in Stereo

M: After graduation I got some work with Saint Etienne.
J: That was straight out of Kingston?
M: Yes, two weeks after the show…. Their first album really clicked with me. It was retro futuristic. I felt a kinship; they had lots of pop culture reference, real fans, but they weren’t slick. They’d written their home address on the back of the sleeve, so I went to Tufnell Park and stuck a package of art through their door, and went back to Kingston and waited! “Come on then….” I didn’t have a plan B! A week or two later I had to move home, and nothing had happened, so I went up to their record company (Heavenly in Covent Garden), and “ding-dong”. “Err, I sent a package to Saint Etienne.” And they said, “Oh yeah, come on in. They talked about you.” A miracle. A couple of days later, I met them in a cafe in Soho and they gave me a job. They gave me £2000 and the confidence to carry on…. It gave me some kudos and the money to come back to London—that’s when I moved in with the Aphex Twin. London life started. So then I went to Select; one of my flatmate’s brothers was the editor.
J: And were you going to gigs? All the time? Tons of gigs?
M: Oh yeah. Yeah. Making up for Minehead! I started dating the editorial assistant of Select: free access to everything!
J: I remember seeing Pulp really early on, and it just seemed so entirely impossible
for them not to become huge. I remember thinking what kind of world is this that Jarvis Cocker is not a star?
M: I felt maybe they’d be on Top of the Pops but will never be mainstream. That’s why it was such a shock to see bands like Oasis. I felt, “I fought in the indie trenches for these football fellows to play Knebworth in their kagools!” I wasn’t interested anymore.
J: Is that when you got out?
M: I could see it all changing. 1997 was when I first came to San Francisco. My mind was out of Britain by then.
J: Good job. You got out; I wish I’d gotten out. I was more entrenched.
M: You had a lot more involvement; still, it took me four more years to actually move.

Kanye West, 2015
Kanye West, 2015

J: So we’ve hit ’96, ’97—you visit San Francisco for some reason, on holiday or … ?
M: Yeah. By this time, I was getting a lot more work. I was doing book covers and lots of magazine stuff—I was working for The Observer every week, and by default became an illustrator. It just took off in that way. I stopped doing sleeves because I’d had some awful music industry dealings.
J: So what effect did it have on your work being here?
M: I think it was more not being in London and the openness, discovering California, and meeting Cindy (my wife). I was 31. Thirty wonderful! Everything was shiny. It was really magic. My move to America was charmed.
J: So how important is it to you that your work is uplifting?
M: I think that it’s necessary for me to make work, and that process is uplifting to me, so maybe that shows. I think my work has different styles, or voices, for different emotions. I’m amazed when people have a singular artistic style. Sometimes I want my work to be funny, other times deadly serious; how can it have the same delivery? Punk rock didn’t yield many love songs, right? I went through a period of time in my 20s quite angry; I’ve created from lots of different energy sources. Some work I look at, and I like it still, but I know that it came from a ghastly place. And maybe that was just the best of me coming out in it.

MGMT poster in spread from Drawn in Stereo
MGMT poster in spread from Drawn in Stereo
Self-portrait, 2015
Self-portrait, 2015

J: So how do you feel your work is formed?
M: Well, it’s back to the pancreas lining; how’s that formed? I just keep going, you know?
J: It’s just showing up, and making it work, and ignoring the voice in your head?
M: Yeah. The voice in my head just says, “Keep on keeping on.”
J: But at some point it must have said, “You’re not good enough.”
M: All the time, yeah.
J: How long did it take to shake that off?
M: Oh, it’s always there. I can never really achieve what I want. Sometimes I think I’ve caught something, but it pops like a bubble. I view that as a positive. There’s always another chance to make something better; it’s a journey. It’s hard to be objective about your work. If you compare it with others, you are judging your inner flaws against others’ outward successes. Whatever gifts I have, that’s what I work with. I keep making the work and see where that takes me. I’m very grateful for the chance. I think I’ve made a little go a long way! Any fool can make a lot go a long way, right?

Cover of Drawn in Stereo; All images © Michael Gillette; ammobooks.com
Cover of Drawn in Stereo; All images © Michael Gillette; ammobooks.com

This is an extract from a longer conversation between Frischmann and Gillette which appears in Gillette’s new monograph Drawn in Stereo, published by Ammo Books, priced $29.95; ammobooks.com

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