Subway Sect is a new radio series, produced by Maria Bartolo and CR’s Eliza Williams, which is airing on Resonance FM, London’s art/experimental radio station. The shows aim to explore the complex relationship between art and music and take the form of a series of conversations between artists, musicians, writers, designers, DJs and music video directors.
The shows go out each Wednesday at 1pm on Resonance (104.4 FM or online at www.resonancefm.com) and we’ll also be bringing you transcripts of highlights from the shows each week on the CR blog.
This week’s Subway Sect sees music video and advertising director Dougal Wilson in conversation with DJ and artist Shelley Parker. The two discuss Wilson’s videos for musicians including Jarvis Cocker and Bat For Lashes, while Parker explains the differences between DJing at Tate Britain compared to Fabric, and describes her new record label, Structure. The conversation took place earlier this year at Wilson’s production company offices, Blink Productions.
On early music videos
Shelley Parker: I can remember embarrassing 80s pop videos – things like Rio by Duran Duran and Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel – and then going to school the next day and saying, ‘Did you see that new Spandau Ballet video?’, and then going, ‘Yeah, it was great’, or ‘it was shit’ or whatever.
Dougal Wilson: There’s nothing embarrassing about Rio or Sledgehammer, they’re great videos.
SP: Sledgehammer was good, but Rio…
Maria Bartolo: Can you remember much about the video?
SP: Just the yacht and the whole glamour of it, and thinking when I was 11 that was just unbelievably cool.
DW: I’ve actually got the Rio video on my iPod.
SP: [laughs] Really?
DW: You can buy music videos on iTunes. I’ve tried to buy all the classic videos – well, I’ve got as far as Thriller and Rio.
SP: It was a classic I think.
DW: Yeah, but have you seen it recently? It’s really pretentious and quite abstract… I remember the yacht and I just thought it was lots of aspirational images of them in the tropics being all cool in white suits, but when you watch it again it’s got some really strange bits in it. It’s got this blue hand grabbing someone’s foot and it’s got paint going down a boat and water splashing off some chrome for no reason and then it’s got this really strange slapstick comedy in it, like – who’s the drummer? Andy Taylor?
SP: Roger Taylor [laughs]. Cut that out!
DW: There’s a brilliant scene with him chatting up a girl – as they walk in the water they’re having a laugh and she’s like a model and is being aloof and he’s trying to be cool. Then suddenly, in complete contrast to the rest of the style of the video, he starts hopping around really comically and he’s got a crab on his toe and he’s going [makes a comic sound of someone in pain] and he falls back into the water and she laughs at him. Completely strange – it’s like a complete Benny Hill moment in the middle of an otherwise attempted stylish video.
SP: [laughs] I’ll have to see it again!
Rio video, Duran Duran
DW: The video I remember vividly, because I remember walking into my friend’s living room – I was round there on a Saturday morning and I think it must have been part of Noel Edmonds’ Multicoloured Swap Shop – was seeing Kate Bush performing Wuthering Heights.
SP: Oh yeah.
DW: And I don’t know if it was a music video but I do remember that the image was really startling – it was her in a flowing white thing with her arms outstretched – and the combination of what she looked like, and the noise she was making, was quite arresting for an eight year-old. Even though there was no concept to the video, it was just really strange. And my brother’s friend, who was older than me, was like ‘SSHHH!’ Because he thought it was really important to see Kate Bush because it was the trendy thing. It just shows, doesn’t it…? …I don’t know what the point I’m making there is.
MB: So what bands were important to you growing up?
SP: For some reason I was really into David Bowie from a really early age, but no one at school was, I just got into him. I just liked the weirdness.
MB: Why was that?
SP: I don’t know, I think it was because I was always quite arty and I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s arty’ – but not really knowing anything about him, just liking the music and the general weirdness.
DW: Which era of Bowie?
SP: All of it. Particularly the dressing up – Aladdin Sane. I also like the whole Let’s Dance thing; I think it was that track that got me into him, when I was about 12 or something.
DW: That’s the crazy video with the mushroom cloud on the horizon. Really strange, I remember that was number one for about five weeks and it had this moment in it, because I was paranoid about nuclear war. There’s an instrumental bit in the middle where it goes ‘der der der der der der, whhhoooosshhh’ [makes the sound of an explosion] and in this video he’s looking across this landscape and this mushroom cloud comes up.
Let’s Dance video, David Bowie
MB: And what bands were you into Dougal?
DW: When I was really young I was really into Abba because my parents were but then when I got a bit more aware about music I got into the Beatles and OMD. I don’t know why I was into OMD.
SP: Good choice I think, I was into OMD as well.
DW: They were good, yeah. The first concert I saw, at The Liverpool Empire, was OMD and my friends from down the road – who I was in a band with – we were about 10, and we went to see OMD together, that was quite a magical moment. And then I got into trendy stuff like Joy Division and New Order and other stuff.
MB: So you were in a band… can you tell us a bit about that?
DW: Yeah… the interesting thing was I was very, very young to get into a band, but it was like a bunch of kids dossing about. There were two brothers who lived down my road and they were from quite a bohemian family and they played the guitar. I used to hang out with them and I loved hitting this drum they had, so I became the drummer. We called ourselves Legend but we spelt it with a ‘d’ [Ledgend] for some reason, so we spelt it wrong. [laughter] I don’t know why, it feels like a Heavy Metal name but we weren’t at all. Our first song was called Space Invaders and we did a gig at our primary school – I wish someone had videoed it but it was about 1980, before video cameras. But we did a gig to the whole primary school, and kids were dancing around. It was really basic, just two guys on acoustic guitars and I think I had three drums or something.
On Shelley’s early artworks
MB: Shelley, how did the sound and visual elements come together in your work? Was it something that happened at art school or was it before?
SP: Yeah, I think it happened about the second year of art school, when I started to make a connection between the two, after having just worked visually. I started to think about sound and recording things, and just basically walking around with a recording Walkman all the time.
MB: So this was at St Martins.
MB: So what kind of things were you doing there?
SP: I’d just walk around and go to amusement arcades and to clubs and make recordings – just down the street and on the tube and just record things. Sample them, edit them down and put them together in some kind of order.
DW: Why were you doing that? Did you just like noises?
SP: I just liked ambient noises. I discovered electronic music, through the New York 80s scene, like Shannon and Dr Beat and all those Miami electronic things… then got into Acid House and through that was really into electronic stuff.
DW: So what did you do with the noises once you recorded them?
SP: I just would stand there at college really solemnly [laughs].
DW: Was it on a mini disc?
SP: Yeah, on a mini disc and a recording Walkman as well, and on a DAT. There was one piece I did where I put a microphone outside – in the middle of the college it’s like an atrium – and had some of my samples playing and then had the actual or real sound outside and tried to mix them together as a kind of improvised piece.
DW: But there were no visuals to it?
DW: Were there many other people doing things with just sound?
SP: No [laughs].
DW: That’s quite interesting – because when you say you’re an art student the natural assumption is that you are a visual artist.
SP: Yeah, they [the college] kind of tolerated it – this was in the late 90s, and there wasn’t really a lot of discourse around it for writing a thesis – it was just the obvious things, like John Cage, Stockhausen and all that kind of stuff. I was interested in looking at the area between sound and music and clubs. I was taking a lot of photographs in clubs. So I think I was just trying to link all the things together and find a place for them – maybe just for me, for myself.
DW: I suppose thing would be, ‘When is it music and when is it art?’
DW: But that’s probably just semantics because I’m sure there’s no boundary between them really.
SP: Yeah, a lot less so now. With a lot of those things, like – Is it fashion? Is it art? Is it video? Is it film? Blah blah blah… before there used to be a lot more ‘This is this and that is that’, which I think came from art colleges – you know, you couldn’t do film if you were doing painting, you couldn’t have those things mixed together. But art colleges have changed now.
MP: At your MA exhibition I remember you were using photography, but it had a sonic potential to it, in a sense, because the subjects were all bands.
SP: Yeah, I got really interested in the idea of the ‘performer’ so I took photographs of loads of bands really, but looking at them like mythological figures, looking at their gestures and not just the obvious press shots. The way they behaved, like these religious icons with their hands out like they are on a crucifix or something. And also taking photographs of them in a certain way – not using a flash, it would just be ambient light, and pushing film as well, so it’s really resonating in the same way that the music would be resonating.
DW: What do you do now? I know you’re a DJ and you’re a composer as well. How do you use the visual side, which you’re obviously interested in?
SP: I’m not doing visuals at the moment. It’s more the places where I’ve been playing; I played at the Tate recently and at the Konekitta Museum. Also with my label, which I’ve just set up, that’s going to hopefully have some visual element to it, through club visuals or something like that, or a weird photography exhibition that could go alongside releases. I think in my mind I had to separate from taking photographs and then just immerse myself in making music and DJing, more with making music really. But I think now I’m ready to bring it together again.
DW: How? Is that something like VJing?
SP: It’s a tough one because I’m not a massive fan of the whole VJing thing.
DW: I don’t get it! I find it distracting, you know – you’re at a club, not that I’m a massive clubber, but you’re dancing around and… I’m sure there are good ones but…
SP: No, there aren’t! (laughs)
DW: It’s like watching the TV when you’re dancing! Then they say, you know, ‘But you don’t have to look at it, it’s just there!’ I know that but then that’s like watching TV but not really. If the TV’s on somewhere I have to look at it, but then perhaps that’s just me.
MB: Have you seen any club visuals that work, that do what you’d like them to do?
DW: I’ve been to some good rock concerts. I remember a Flaming Lips gig I went to, when they did that album The Soft Bulletin. That was brilliant, because it felt like every image had a good idea behind it. The keyboard player also played the drums, so he couldn’t do both on stage, so they had him playing keyboards on stage and filmed him and had a projection of him playing the drums. It was quite funny – they called him their two-dimensional drummer. But club visuals, I don’t know, I find them a bit vague sometimes.
MB: What about you Shelley? What’s your thought on club visuals?
SP: I think having worked as a photographer I find it really difficult to look at abstract or quirky images – I just think ‘Why have you projected that?’ and ‘What’s it got to do with music?’ It’s just graphics, it’s just looking at moving images that are not really saying anything. I don’t really know if that’s changed since the lava lamps of the 60s, where we are looking at swirling images.
DW: That’s what I think – yeah, ‘Look at this, it’s a bit trippy isn’t it?’
MB: It’s interesting isn’t it – as presumably one day someone’s going to come up with something really interesting.
SP: Yeah, like Kraftwerk. [To Dougal] Have you seen Kraftwerk in concert?
DW: No. But last time I saw The Beastie Boys that was really good. They really had great ideas, they hadn’t just slapped on some piece of film that vaguely went with the music. I don’t know if you heard about this DVD they did. It was called something like ‘Awesome, I Fucking Shot That’, and they gave 100 people in the audience a DV camera and they had to shoot their experience of the concert. The only rule was that they had to keep the camera running throughout the whole gig, even when they went to the toilet. And then the DVD was split into 100 screens and you could watch them all at the same time or you could go into one… Anyway, the point is that I think they work best when there is some kind of idea behind them.
What’s A Girl To Do video, Bat for Lashes, directed by Dougal Wilson
Dougal on making music videos
MB: When you make music videos, do you have a clean slate or do artists come in loaded with ideas that they want you to illustrate? How does it work? Do you insist on having creative control or is it more of a collaboration?
DW: It depends, I never insist on anything. Usually you get sent an MP3 of the track by email and they give you a brief. Usually the brief is pretty vague, like ‘Must include band’ or ‘They need to use their own stylist’ or ‘They want something dark but are open to humour’. Which is completely vague! Which is sometimes quite good, because I can just listen to the song and do something with puppets or something. [Laughter]
Where the brief works well is when they give you references, like ‘The singer quite likes this…’. One of the last videos I did had a really good brief – it was for Bat for Lashes and Natasha from the band is quite visual, she does all her own artwork. She had a great brief – she liked ET, especially the bike scene, and Donnie Darko, and 80s looking stuff, and the forest at night. So it wasn’t ‘I want you to do this and this’, it was more, ‘I like this and this’. And if you like her music, you kind of like that too, because it’s that kind of thing. So that was a really useful brief, because it was like pieces of a puzzle. So I ended up doing a video involving a dance routine on bikes, through a forest at night, that looked a bit like Donnie Darko with ET. [laughs] So the idea was born – well, ripped off – from all the references.
MB: Is there a certain type of music or band you prefer to work with? Or are you open to working with different types?
DW: I’m really open to different types of things but what I’ve found is that a lot of the more famous people don’t like my ideas so much! [Laughs] Most of the bands that I’ve done have been Indie bands or smaller, trendy ones. But I don’t know if there’s a recognisable trend in the stuff I’ve done. I like to do a different genre every time as I like to do something unexpected for that genre of music, if possible. I pitched on a Girls Aloud video once – which sounds, you know, ‘what was I thinking?!’ – but I just thought that that would be so mainstream, so if you could do something unusual for a band like that it would almost be more of an achievement than doing something unusual for a band like Radiohead. So I’m totally up for that. I’d love to do a big hip hop artist or Christina Aguilera or something, but we’ll see.
MB: Working in a more commercial context, have you encountered frustrations?
DW: No, but maybe it’s just simply the level of budgets I’ve been working with, which haven’t been enormously high. I find with videos you have quite a lot of control. I don’t know if it’s because there’s never any time to change anything, because everything’s a bit of a rush with videos, or if it’s because no one’s got the attention span to look through my storyboards, but usually… well, the last four videos I’ve done have been Basement Jaxx, Badly Drawn Boy, Jarvis Cocker and Bat for Lashes, and there were no comments on any of them (laughs). I storyboard my stuff very tightly, so they supposedly knew what they were getting, but it was all fine. But you are working with people who are pretty open to interesting ideas, hopefully. It’s more the case in TV commercials.
MB: I was going to ask you about the Orange advert that you did, using Brian Eno’s music as a soundtrack. How did that come about?
DW: Well, we didn’t really know what the ad was going to be like when we started it. The script from the ad agency, Mother, just said, ‘An old couple dance through their house and out into the garden, and the way they move shows that they know each other.’ The original script was that it was going to look like a Hollywood dance routine, that was my first idea, which would have been disastrous, so luckily we didn’t do that. And then Mother suggested that we should do it more as a modern dance, so we found this dance company, DV8, and worked with two guys from there. But we didn’t know what the music was going to be, so I was trying all sorts of different things like classical music. We thought for a while it was going to be a singer-songwritery intimate tune to do with a relationship so we were playing this Iron & Wine track. But I’ve always been quite a big Brian Eno fan and I had quite a lot of his stuff on my computer, and so did one of the creatives, Sam, so I think we simultaneously considered putting Eno on. I think it’s quite nice with pictures and music if you’re not literal, if you put something on that’s a bit lateral.
MB: It displaces it, somehow.
DW: Exactly. In some way the combination of them is greater than the sum of the parts. For some reason we put on this one from Music for Airports, I think because it’s really sparse and there’s a lot of silence in it, which we thought would be interesting, and it really works. But it’s a bit of a travesty of the track because the track’s actually 12 minutes long and we used the first 60 seconds…. Although it does tend to repeat the same thing over and over again… (Laughs) Then we had to show it to Brian – unfortunately I never met him, but apparently he absolutely loved it, which was great.
Eliza Williams: Yeah. I saw him do a lecture last year and he was talking about how much he liked it and how happy he was that his music was coming out in this different way.
EW: Yeah, I found it quite surprising because his music is so abstract I thought he might be quite uncomfortable about it being used in this more commercial setting. But actually it was completely the reverse – he was really excited by it.
DW: Yeah, he strikes me as being an open-minded guy… and we obviously paid him for it as well! (Laughs) That’s the interesting thing actually… that track is supposedly an avant garde thing that not many people should be familiar with but I loved the fact that it was on national TV. Because there’s nothing intellectual about it, it’s not a hard thing to appreciate; it’s a beautiful sound. So I suppose this ties in with what I said about doing unconventional ideas for big acts – there’s no reason why you should have to rely on formulaic ideas or clichés.
Orange ad, Dance, directed by Dougal Wilson
Shelley on DJing and her record label, Structure
MB: Shelley, how different is it for you DJ ing at the Tate? That must be such a different experience compared to DJing at Fabric or at another music venue? Can you talk a bit about how the location impacts the work you do?
SP: Well, I suppose you don’t have the pressure to make people dance, people are there almost for the performance and so they just stand and watch. Going back to what Dougal said about the avant garde, they’re expecting something a bit weird or whatever so you can put things together or play records that you wouldn’t necessarily play at Fabric – and I quite like that. I quite like that I can programme a set that can make people stand and think as opposed to the pressure of making sure that they’re dancing. So I enjoy those spaces more.
MB: It’s interesting how the architecture itself ‘fixes’ the experience in a sense, so that in the Tate people don’t dance, whereas if you were playing the same record in Fabric they would. So the building itself does something.
SP: Yeah, it’s weird because it (Tate Britain) is such a grand building.
DW: Which bit were you in?
SP: At the bottom of the main gallery as you walk in, at the end there. So it was kind of big pillars everywhere (laughs) and sculptures and everything…
MW: And didn’t you have your label logo projected on the wall?
SP: Yeah. That was the first week we actually got the logo done and it was projected on and off.
MB: That must have been quite nice, having your logo shown at the Tate!
SP: Yeah, it was pretty weird as it was the first time it had been seen in public and it was projected, and their projector screen was enormous (laughs).
DW: Was this during the daytime?
SP: It was in the evening.
DW: And what sort of thing were you playing?
SP: I started off playing quite dark pop, if that makes sense, kind of electronic-y kind of stuff, almost a bit Kraftwerk-y, that kind of thing. But then going into grime and dubstep and that kind of sound, very bass-y, dubby, lots of reverb… but still very electronic. It was quite interesting to see how people really got that, I just found the crowd in this space were really up for anything, they really wanted to be challenged.
MB: You’ve just set up your own label – what is the ideal space for you to play your music? And what kind of medium? Is it something we’d hear on the internet, or on the radio, or a club, or a gallery..?
SP: I think at the moment I’m thinking of it being between all those things. Some days I think it’s got to be a dance label, but there’s so many dance labels out there at the moment, I don’t know if I particularly want it to be restricted in that way. And I think coming from the art background, and from the found sound stuff, it makes more sense to have it be a bit more open.
MB: So can you tell us a bit more about the label – what is the ethos of the label?
SP: The label’s called Structure, and it’s basically a lot of my recordings that I did when I was at art college and a few recordings I’ve done recently; I’ve edited them down and now I’m making them into tracks. And then I’m giving those samples to other artists who then remix and compose and structure and arrange what they want to do with them.
MB: So it’s quite a conceptual project really?
SP: It’s getting that way. I kind of want it to be more conceptual really, because I think once you’ve put these noises through different plug-ins and computer programs, then they just begin to sound like noises. So what I’m really interested in trying to convey the original environment, get that into somehow into the music, without it being just an ambient track though.
MB: So how do you see these found sounds making their way into clubs where people dance? Do you think that that’s something that will function easily, or will people find it peculiar?
DW: What sort of sounds are they?
SP: Like I was saying earlier, things from amusement arcades and the underground. I did some recordings at an airport, travelling around on a rickshaw in India… and a carnival as well.
MB: Didn’t you tape a mic to an air vent at one point?
SP: Yeah, I’d forgotten about that! I used to live in this flat in King’s Cross and underneath was a disused office, and there was an air vent there. The sound would just come in through the vent and sound really weird and distorted and like there was a plug-in on this air vent! So I recorded it. But I’m still working on how I’m going to put this across – do I want this just to be a weird noise on a dance track, or do I want it to be more than that?
MB: Do you see it as a collaboration? But there is some authorship you have, as it’s your sound, you’re selecting the people…
SP: It’s a collaboration. I’m working with people who are working in the underground electronic domain, and I’ve chosen them because I want their experience, I want them to push the sounds further. I’m interested in the found sounds I suppose because they’ve had some sort of life, they’re not just presets or a sound from a synth. I’m interested that these sounds have existed, but at the moment I’m still experimenting with what I’m doing.
MB: I was going to ask you, Dougal, about sound. You’re doing the visuals, but do you not ever feel, ‘I want to do the sound for this!’
DW: Well, on music videos I often mess about with the song quite a lot. I often show complete disrespect for the song. For this Jarvis [Cocker] video I did, he’s in a taxi, and to help the story, we really needed some sound effects. It was all from the point of view of a taxi passenger in the back of a cab, and we started off with the sound of her in the street, and the taxi coming up, and Jarvis’ voice, and then the music was on the radio… so we did the whole sound mix and as he starts driving he starts singing over his shoulder. And because he’s not looking where he’s going, he goes over the pavement and starts mowing people down, and hilarity ensues. And there’s lots of sound effects of people screaming and things hitting the car, so we did loads of sound on that. That was probably the most I’ve messed about with a song. I think I tend to impose these elaborate stories on songs, and I don’t see the song as the end of the sound of a music video. I think they should be entertaining and it’s nice when you can add something with the sound.
SP: Do you think that could be really developed then, the idea that the person that’s directing these videos has more say? Do you think there will be more of that going on?
DW: I think it totally depends on the artist. Most mainstream videos, like a Shakira video… I doubt she’d want noises stuck on top of her track. I like it though when the video is seen more as a piece of entertaining film that accompanies the song, but I don’t know if that’s something that’s going to become more mainstream. The mainstream pop videos for ages have simply been formulaic ideas with the song on top of them. It would be nice if it did of course, because people watch television to be entertained and I think it’s just another part of being entertained, to develop the sound beyond the song.
SP: So you’re not trying to put forward some big heavy message?
DW: Nope, basically I’m taking the piss.
Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time video, Jarvis Cocker, directed by Dougal Wilson