The second of our Specials is an interview with Billy Childish, artist, musician, poet and novelist – Wikipedia credits Childish with “…more than 40 collections of poetry, … three novels, … more than 100 full-length independent LPs and … more than 2,500 paintings.” In this interview Childish talks about his art, his music and his recent run-in with Jack White of the White Stripes popular music combo.
Interview conducted by Charles Thomson.
CT: Thereâ€™s been a bit of a spat with Jack White recently in the media. How and when did you first get to know him, and at that time what was his attitude to you (in particular regarding your approach to music), and yours to him?
BC: I wouldnâ€™t really claim to know Jack at all well. I first heard of his group in the late 90â€™s when The White Stripes turned up on a small independent label we sometimes did LPâ€™s with in the United States (Sympathy for the Record Industry). Long Gone John, the owner, told me about them and that they were â€œhuge fansâ€? of my stuff. I heard a track or two of theirs in a record shop one time, but I donâ€™t buy records or listen to the radio, so other than that Iâ€™m not that familiar with their stuff. But Long Gone John saw a similarity in approach as weâ€™d been playing very stripped-down old blues/punk/ music for the past 15 years or so. We were particularly known in the USA for our uncompromising, home-made recordings. I think Jack liked our stuff.
CT: How did the relationship progress subsequently?
BC: When The White Stripes came to the UK 2000 or 2001 I think, they asked if Iâ€™d do some support slots with them. Bruce, our old drummer, was driving them round and lent them his drums and what not, and put them up. They naturally approached us (Bruce, Liam â€“ Toerag studios), being the people who had the sound. I did a solo blues support for them at The Dirty Water Club in Tufnell Park. Weâ€™d been playing that slot for over a decade and it was the place for a â€˜garageâ€™ band. Jack was very friendly and asked if I might record them on my old half-track machine down in Chatham sometime, which I said was a possibility. He also asked if I would consider appearing on the David Letterman show with them in the United States (which I hadnâ€™t heard of), but again I said it we could talk about it. I was a bit reticent because I didnâ€™t like the sound or the fuss about Jackâ€™s group, but that would be true of almost every type of music I come across. Overall, I found him decent and respectful and liked him. After the gig Jack asked if I could get him a copy of a 45 we did called Headcoat Lane, which he said he particularly liked because of the line â€œWhat would you know, youâ€™re only a girl.â€? I said that I would send him a copy if I could find one. He also mentioned that he had tried to record one of my songs live to acetate when they were gigging in New Zealand. I said, â€œgood, you should record my songs soâ€™s that I can make some money.â€?
CT: He has accused you of plagiarism: â€œwhen you take someone elseâ€™s music and put your own lyrics on top of it, itâ€™s still called plagiarism. Something Mister Childish hasnâ€™t learned yet.â€? Itâ€™s not clear whether this refers to his music or other peopleâ€™s. Do you consider you have done this with his music, and could you give your thoughts on this accusation? Have you even been influenced by any of his music?
BC: No, I donâ€™t think Jack means Iâ€™ve copied his music, especially as Iâ€™ve never even listened to The White Stripes. Jack has covered a few tunes that we covered earlier on. We recorded Death Letter Blues and John the Revelator, two of Son Houseâ€™s (a blues musician) numbers. The White Stripes later chose those to cover and record as well, but not the other way round. He must mean that I use other peopleâ€™s tunes sometimes, but thatâ€™s the same as everybody does/has. Itâ€™s what Blues music is: to add your own lyrics, or change a tune round; All the original black blues musicians did it and later artists carried that right on. Maybe he should take it up with Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Lead Belly, Sun House, ad infinitum, before he takes it up with low life like me. They all did exactly what Jack says you can’t do – put your own words to old tunes and vice versa. This stuff isn’t rocket science: it’s just 3 chords, stacked up one way or t’other. I think Jack was just in a bit of a rage because GQ magazine quoted me as â€œnot being able to listen to The White Stripesâ€?. Itâ€™s a shame it came over that way; I wasnâ€™t singling Jack out particularly, I was just specifically asked about The White Stripes. In truth, Iâ€™m not into the modern sound at all, so I donâ€™t like the modern groups, or many old ones for that matter. Itâ€™s not just The White Stripes. Iâ€™m not a music fan, if you like.
CT: Iâ€™d like to ask if you consider if he has been influenced in any way by your music and your attitude to it, if in fact there is any way that he has â€œplagiarisedâ€? you.
BC: No I donâ€™t think that would be fair, but I did do the ground work for a lot of these â€˜garage rockâ€™ groups. Back in the 90â€™s The New York Times cited me as â€œThe undisputed king of garage rockâ€™. Well, that was very nice of them, but I donâ€™t like garage rock and Iâ€™m no king. The only garage group I loved were The Mummies, a SF group that were big fans of Thee Mighty Caesars. But even that was really just simple rock â€˜nâ€™ roll, same as the best punk music was just simple rock n roll. Itâ€™s like this, I donâ€™t want to be Jack White, but he might once of wanted to be Billy Childish, just a little bit. He asked me to go Top of The Pops and paint a picture live on stage with them. Again, I told Jack that I would think about it, but in the end the BBC wouldnâ€™t allow it, so Jack wrote my name on his arm in felt tip pen instead, which I never quite understood. But he meant to help me, Iâ€™m sure. I did tell Jack that his mistake was asking the BBCâ€™s permission rather than telling them what was going to happen.
CT: He chose to use the small â€œToeragâ€? studios in North London to record in with its old 1960s valve equipment, using the producer Liam Watson, that you have worked with, and even doing a duet with Holly Golightly, whom you started in her musical career, included in gigs for years and put on records. How, to your knowledge did this come about and what do you make of it, particularly in the light of his â€œplagiarismâ€? accusation?
BC: Yes we recorded in Toe Rag on and off from the early 90â€™s. Liam got into recording partly because he was a fan of our sound in The Milkshakes. Thatâ€™s also how Holly came along too, she was a 15 year old in the audience back in 1982 and I made friends with her. Years later she turned up again and we got her to sing with several of the girls. I like to get everyone feeling involved. As to The White Stripes recording at Toe Rag, again, thatâ€™s natural. It was quite a famous little studio in the tiny world of garage music and a lot of the Yanks (we were famous in those circles in The USA) thought that I owned it, which is a joke as I never owned anything; thatâ€™s all Liamâ€™s hard work. Anyway, Toe Rag would have been an obvious choice to try to get the sound + Bruce was right there showing them London and lending them his drum kit. Jack even got Bruce to design The White Stripes Cover for them, as Bruce used to design a lot of our LP sleeves in the past. And of course if Bruce is about, soâ€™s Holly; sheâ€™s more open to music than me and would have been delighted to sing with Jack. Early on I think Jack acknowledged all of this but Iâ€™m not sure how heâ€™d stand on it now. Itâ€™s a bit like the Tracey Emin game – once upon a time she acknowledged me as a â€œmajor influenceâ€?, but when I didnâ€™t applaud her stuff she got the knife out. But I think theyâ€™re all great. Mad and deluded, maybe, but its all fun and games. I donâ€™t know exactly how all this fame stuff comes about, itâ€™s just a little network that they step into and some money reigns down and good luck to them, â€˜cause they need it.
CT: From what youâ€™re saying, heâ€™s been influenced by what youâ€™ve been doing for the last thirty-odd years, and has found some of that very useful to help him find his own direction.
BC: Well, yes. But apart from recording some of what we recorded where we recorded it and having the same person do their art work, there was not much in common, apart from asking Holly along, I suppose, but thatâ€™s not much either. Iâ€™m not out to get anyone; I’d rather it was underplayed. I just answer questions, have a big mouth and get into a bit of trouble. After I saw Jackâ€™s response to the GQ article in the US, I emailed him saying sorry for upsetting him and signed it â€œBilly, the big mouthed plagiarist.â€? He declined to answer, but maybe the English sense of humour doesnâ€™t translate. I’m not bothered about him getting ideas off of us; thatâ€™s what itâ€™s all for. Anyway, our sound and style is absolutely different. I think Jack shied away from having me record them when he sensed I wasn’t on board. I was certainly asked by a journalist at the time why I hadnâ€™t produced the White Stripes LP, and I told them because Jack had the good sense not to ask me, and if Iâ€™d produced that LP (Elephant), it wouldnâ€™t have even made the bottom of the independent charts, let alone to number one. Besides, Iâ€™d go mad if I had to be in a studio for two whole weeks. It negates the point of recording simply. We do our LPs in two or three days: any more than that and I get bored stiff. Iâ€™ve got other things to do and I donâ€™t really like music that much.
CT: Whatâ€™s the update on the disagreement with him and whatâ€™s your current view of his music and his approach to his work?
BC: Well, first thing when I saw the GQ article was, oh dear, theyâ€™ve gone for Jack a bit. You see, the writer, then the subs, can really give an article a slant if they want to. I was just answering questions about what I liked and disliked and why. Turns out that GQ was annoyed with Jack for refusing to talk to them about me. Several years back Jack interviewed me for Dazed and Confused magazine as one of his heroes, but when GQ asked him about me, he told them that he had nothing to say as he wasnâ€™t really that familiar with my work. I think that pissed them off, so they took the mick out of him for writing an advert for Coca-cola. I suppose Jackâ€™s a bit sensitive about the apparent lack of credibility in having done that, so anyway he lashed out at me because Iâ€™ve not been a good father to him, or something, i.e. not finding his music to be my cup of tea. Four years back, Jack told me that his favourite recordings were the ones he made at home in his bedroom. I donâ€™t know, but I guess he might be right. But if you want the big bucks and the big stage, you have to compromise your sound. I havenâ€™t done that: weâ€™re like a local corner shop. The corner shop cannot become Tescoâ€™s and still keep its intimate atmosphere. Weâ€™re grannyâ€™s home baked cookies, actually baked by grandma, not Mister Tesco.
CT: Do you consider you have plagiarised anybodyâ€™s music? What music has influenced you, and to what extent?
Iâ€™ve borrowed plenty, mainly in blues, which is really what the blues is: everything is second-hand. Itâ€™s the same with punk rock, if you like. Those styles are a depository for the lost and disenchanted, a chance to play without the need of great talent. As it happens, I think that originality is over-rated in our society. Originality usually means gimmick. I just try to be authentic. I mean what I do, and I acknowledge what I borrow, quite a small amount as it happens, and thatâ€™s it. Kurt Cobain said that people thought he was original only because he kept his sources obscured. I tell the world what I nick so Iâ€™m a plagiarist. Fine, I can be that for people if thatâ€™s what they need, but actually, sound and performance is all that matters. Thereâ€™s no such thing as a good song; otherwise any one could do You Really got Me and it would sound great, whereas The Kinks canâ€™t even do You really Got Me anymore, because theyâ€™ve lost the sound. If you arenâ€™t in touch with spirit, then the cake is inedible. In short â€“ I copy everything, because thatâ€™s what itâ€™s there for. Weâ€™re all stardust and nothing new is coming into being: everything just changes shape and form. My nose, for example, was once a Tyrannosaurusâ€™s toe nail. I just take life and inject it with my unique spirit. Thatâ€™s everybodyâ€™s job, and you have to stay true to do that, to try not to be an egotistical shit all your life. In a word – Iâ€™m entirely original.
CT: In general â€“ and Iâ€™m not just referring to music here but across the board in art forms â€“ how do you see the subject of plagiarism, influence, interpretation and relationships between any practitionerâ€™s work with that of other practitioners, current or past? How much originality do you really think there is in anyoneâ€™s work?
BC: Influence has to be acknowledged and celebrated first and foremost, not our own shabby egos, or we are in big trouble. Life is a very serious business, debts must be paid now, or we are caught in Karma and have to pay later, big time. Our debt is to our fathers and mother first, then to our heroes, Christ or Buddha, or the next door neighbour, who ever. Thatâ€™s how you pay them back: with honour. Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Son House, Van Gogh, Holbein, Dostoievski, mum and dad. Everyone is just reinventing the wheel. Nature has it all. Paint from nature and you donâ€™t need ideas: she will give you everything. If youâ€™re not overly neurotic, you donâ€™t need art; then you can just play and not make it a big deal.
CT: Music is just one of the forms you work in. Iâ€™d like to talk about your painting, first of all how quickly you work. If you have a canvas, say 24â€? to 36â€? longest dimension, how long would it normally take to paint the picture? Have you tried working more slowly, and what has happened? How often are you not satisfied with the first result and have to work on something further at a later date, and how long might that take? How many times might you revisit a canvas?
BC: I paint a picture in 15 minutes, maybe 20, sometime three-quarters of an hour; if itâ€™s all going to hell, 3 hours. Iâ€™ve worked slower in the past. If I have trouble I can do that. Sometimes time and effort rescues it, but usually it just tortures it. Most times I like the first go, then come back a couple of hours later and decide whether to add one tiny brush mark; thatâ€™s the touch that pleases my soul. Iâ€™m trying to let the picture express itself and get out the way, not fudge the issue with technique. Much like music and writing. I might rework a canvas once or twice, a novel 20 times and a song twice. But Iâ€™ll paint the same picture 20 times over 20 years and every one will be blindingly different
CT: When did you start painting and could you divide the time since, at least roughly, into distinct periods with stylistic changes? How has your attitude to painting changed over this time (if at all)?
BC: I never stopped painting from age one. When I was a kid 3 â€“6 it was loose. Then it was colourful from 11 â€“16, then dark and graphic as a 21 -33 year old drunk. Since 33 Iâ€™ve just been working backwards again. Thatâ€™s when I became an adult, at 33, and I gave up drink and inverted anger. Painting has always been to go somewhere else for me, to be with myself, a means to make life more beautiful and worth living.
CT: I interviewed you in 2001, at the Vote Stuckist show in Brixton, and was surprised when you told me that you sometimes had to go back to a painting and work on it, as it looked too controlled and you wanted to make it look more spontaneous. Over the years, I have come to appreciate there is a high sophistication in what you do. I had never seen your early Chatham Dockyard drawings until the recent show at the Aquarium Gallery and was surprised at their tightness, accuracy and linear precision, as was Eamon Everall, who said, â€œI didnâ€™t think he had it in himâ€?, and likened them to Hockneyâ€™s work. This kind of conventional skill is not something you display overtly, yet a close scrutiny of your paintings reveals that they could not have been done without it. We have talked about Van Gogh in this respect, as people think his work is all about freedom and expression, and we agree the prime characteristic is an incredible control and discipline. Iâ€™d like you to talk about the relationship between control, self-conscious knowledge and freedom of expression, as critics such as Sarah Kent or David Lee (of the Jackdaw) seem to view your work as crude daubs.
BC: Yes, sometimes spontaneously takes a lot of work and practice. If the painting/song/poem/novel hasnâ€™t got flow and grace, you have to create an illusion of it, to help it be dirty. Itâ€™s like putting on a brand-new starched shirt: you have to go to the woods and roll about in the grime to make it feel comfortable and homely â€“ like what happened to Piglet (Winnie the Pooh) after Kanga washed him clean. From then on, youâ€™re friends with the shirt rather than hating it. Well, when I see a Van Gogh painting in life it makes my teeth itch. Iâ€™d call it downright pernickety. Itâ€™s a real laugh that people think my slapdash stuff is even in the same country as Vincentâ€™s. As to my careful line drawings, I taught myself to draw like that when I was 16, soâ€™s I could get into art school on their â€˜genius clauseâ€™. Thatâ€™s the only way theyâ€™d have me in there as I left school with no qualifications. Then I left that behind. Actually it was easy and natural for me to draw with a single precise line back then, because after school I was a fish out of water â€“ being made to work and feeling lost and shy in that alien environment.
As to my â€˜daubs of paintâ€™, it took a lot of work to get that free and easy, to be natural. Sometimes it still takes a lot of concerted effort not to draw like an uptight artist. Iâ€™ve been working between the tension of my skill and allowing the painting to be as it wants to be since I was 33. The first trick was to not care what others might think of my work. The next was to paint and not care what I thought about it myself. Basically, I donâ€™t bother impressing others, then step it up a gear and donâ€™t bother impressing myself. I donâ€™t show off, or hide behind style, but my style is there: itâ€™s just so big that people canâ€™t see, a bit like my ambition. Iâ€™d say this is an aim in life as well, to let go the bullshit and stand closer to truth. Of course art critics are bamboozled by fun, spontaneity and the surface effect of a painting – and life – thatâ€™s why they canâ€™t get it and are highly confused. My job is to level life; the criticâ€™s job is to be wrong. I can draw and I still draw, but I donâ€™t show off about it and anyone who actually bothers to see, rather than merely look, will pick that up in my paintings. I stand shoulder to shoulder with all the greats, they understand me like an open book. Strangely they are nothing more and nothing less than the rest of us.
CT: What do you find satisfying as a response to your work, and what do you not? Youâ€™ve talked about welcoming criticism, quoted negative reviews and embraced your enemies â€“ even handing them a â€œloaded revolverâ€? in the title of one show. How does this work and is it a defence mechanism on your part?
BC: I like people to recognize me and my unique spirit. To be seen and to be touched is a wonderful thing. But I donâ€™t crave it enough to become a performing monkey. If the critic misses the truth of me, I feel sad and lonely, but thatâ€™s fine too. Me embracing my enemies? Yes, itâ€™s defence of a shy, fragile part of myself, coupled with the realization of the spirit of Christâ€™s love and the emotional, spiritual reality that to embrace our enemies is to embrace ourselves and that this is what we must do to grow. And to grow is the reason we were born. Beyond that, to have a sense of humour and playfulness and not make a drama out of every little knock life has for us. Existence is everything, yet itâ€™s small beer too, much like art and criticism.
CT: Iâ€™ve known you for over 25 years and spent a lot of time trying to work you out, in particular some apparent contradictions. For example, you can take a very big, deep, philosophical view on things, have lot of compassion and understanding for others and help people out, when they need it. You can also be very damning and critical, showing little empathy for anyone that doesnâ€™t fit in with your values, and also get quite concerned with superficial things like having the right image. (You advocate accessing the inner child, yet you certainly werenâ€™t going to dress up as a clown for a Stuckist demonstration, for example, although this is something the child would have no problem with â€“ but the inhibited adult would.) It seems to me that you have not reached a resolution on these things, oscillating between different modes, depending on mood and circumstance: there is an alternation between a limited egocentric attitude and a more evolved â€œspiritualâ€? stance; and, furthermore, over the passage of time you are progressively making a transition into the latter, with a greater understanding and tolerance of others. I know you have put a lot of time and effort into working on yourself (through Buddhist meditation, for example). Iâ€™d be interested in your response.
BC: Yes, I am very heaven and hell like that, and donâ€™t always bridge those fellows comfortably, though I feel this is lifeâ€™s purpose: to embrace all. Iâ€™ve got great overview, loads of compassion, and a wicked angry part that likes to trip others – and me – up. Itâ€™s my wild dogs and Iâ€™m trying to get friendly with them. I have big issues about control: I want to be in charge of the crash, not just be a passenger admiring the view whilst sat next to the drunken pilot. I think this might be the residue of the sexual/mental abuse I was involved in as a child. Other than that, my inner child is fine, but does find clowns scary and not funny at all. Iâ€™m a natural leader and I always thought up the games we would play after school, usually war, and I still treat life like games. I play at being an artist, I pretend to be a musician, and Iâ€™m stupid enough to try to write novels. I believe that all that grown ups do is pretend to do things. This is the healthy way to engage with life. If, on the other hand, you really believe that what you do is hugely important, or worse still, is actually who you are, then you are lost, damned and miserable. As to image, everyone knows what haircut they want, and I love dressing up and colours and hats, we can all chose, but itâ€™s best that that is just 50 percent of the show, not the entire content. I can care about every detail of buttons, cloth and boots – as long as its not a straightjacket â€“ and still know itâ€™s only dressing up. I see all life through a telescope, vivid and exaggerated, if you will, and because I live my life on my terms and in my fantasy it means I paint those strange paintings that donâ€™t seem to care, yet with precise detail.
As to negative aspects, I donâ€™t try to suppress them but embrace them: to touch and acknowledge my loves, foibles, angers, egocentricities and then move on. To have a light touch. To forgive myself and everybody. If some days Iâ€™m a shit, then I say sorry. Life is a big deal and thatâ€™s no big deal, might sum up my feelings.
Childish pictures here and here