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!
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.”
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.
J: Do you feel like at that point you had a vision of what it could be that was sustaining.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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