THE SULTAN OF ART
Last month musical legends and artists Brian Travers from UB40 and John Illsley from Dire Straits exclusively unveiled the artist proofs of their album covers at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía in Estepona on the 22nd of November 2018. These artworks are part of an exhibition of 20 pieces of the artists’ works, which will be on display at the hotel until the 10th of January 2019.
“For the Many” is UB40’s first studio album in six years and celebrates the bands 40th anniversary. The album cover is a tribute to Grenfell Tower survivors and is a representation of a whole skyline of Grenfell Towers with bright primary colours to express the strength and determination of the common man and the explosive, incredible force created when we work together and think of others. The style is a blend of contemporary comic book zeitgeist and street art and stands twelve feet wide and four feet high. The album cover uses a section of this strong painting and Brian Travers has created 40 limited edition prints, which will be on sale at the hotel during the exhibition. Other works that will be exhibited in this new show include the artist’s proof of “In Flanders Fields”, a tribute to the heroes of World War 1.
John Illsley from Dire Straits is also unveiling the artist’s proof of the painting which was featured on the 2008 album “Beautiful You”, an oil painting depicting a guitar on an abstract blue and white background. As well as this album cover, John is bringing nine other works, including two beautiful new abstract works called Puglia and Headland.
Both Brian Travers and John Illsley have always had a passion for painting, both of them studying at art school before getting into music. However, the rigours of recording and touring stopped them from producing the works they wanted to. Since taking a bit of a step back from the music, they have been focusing on their art projects, producing a wide range of wonderful works and exhibiting all around the world. They now combine their art and music and their powerful album covers show just how these two creative pursuits can come together.
Society’s collaborator Leandro G.Vega had the opportunity to talk first hand with John Illsley in this exclusive interview, touching on his music career, how his daughters are following in his footsteps and how art has been a part of him since his school days.
Your base showed us just how tight it could lock in with the drummer, and yours certainly drove the rhythm of the Dire Straits. In one of my favourite tracks of all time, Romeo and Juliet, locking the root note and then choosing the perfect moment to drop in with the 3rd is as close as you can get to imperfect perfection, but I must ask, where you a bassist-by-proxy and if you could choose one (guitar or base), which would it be?
The base is the instrument I’m most comfortable with if I’m playing live, but when I’m writing I use the guitar or the piano. I think when I was quite young I tuned in to the base for some reason with the band, and I think that’s probably instinctual in a way, perhaps it’s just my character, the way you are, the way you relate to things. I’m quite good at holding things together, which was one of the roles that I played in Dire Straits, sort of the foundation, I call it the Engine Room. If the engine room is functioning properly, if the base and the drums are working properly, then you can build on top of that very safely and you haven’t got a problem; if it’s shaky, by the time you get to the end the whole thing falls.
Do you have any anecdotes that spring out when recalling the creation of Romeo and Juliet?
Romeo & Juliet is a curious one. I first heard the initial idea that Mark had in a little sort of studio area I had in my house in south London. Mark would come round, and told me he had this idea for a song, and he started playing the open tuning and I said “that’s interesting”, he started playing it and asked me and I said, “I think that’s pretty darn good!”. Then we started playing the base with it and that’s where the fifth and the third notes started coming in. It came together very quickly as a song. It was a pleasure recording that song because those were the days when you mixed a track, you actually had to physically mix it, move around, pull the plugs, turn that reverb down, that echo up, you were performing. Things are very different now. It’s always been a very special song and I still love playing it now.
Jumping forward 23 odd years, and I apologize for this gloomy start, but I have to ask you since I was a little sad to see how your induction to the Hall of Fame (HOF), sort of a US recognition or coronation for a life time of musical achievement and the legacy you have left us, was dampened by the controversy around Marks’ absence and his reasons for not showing up. I recall that you said, when you first heard of your nomination, and prior to you speaking with him, that “it throws more questions than answers”… In retrospect now, seeing how things turned out, is it still that way, has it thrown even more questions, or perhaps laid a few answers?
I think we’ve all moved on basically. I have to be careful with my words here talking about the whole HOF because it did throw more questions than answers, for a number of reasons: we were mystified from the start as to why the HOF wanted to get the band together again, especially when they knew what the dynamics were and why other people were being included in that as well. There was also no communication between us and them prior to them making that decision. I’m going to leave it at that: they made a decision, and it really didn’t work for us as a band, so I basically took it upon myself to show up and represent the band and go through with it… And it was an extremely difficult time I can tell you. With all due respect to the members of the HOF, they didn’t really help and I was pretty upset, but I’m over it now. We’ve moved on.
The HOF is a massive thing in the US, so you have to respect that, which we tried to do.
Besides all that Jazz of Marks’ absence, what was the Cleveland experience like? Any anecdotes?
It’s very difficult to describe the whole event. It’s very difficult to deal with. They have a particular way of doing things and you have to fall with their system. If you don’t, then don’t go. It’s as simple as that. You know what the deal is, you have to grasp it or go home. I was very pleased that Guy and Alan turned up. It’s history now.
Do you think that music, to be successful, need not be Guitar George, a virtuoso, perfect pitch and melody as long as it is honest (and of course I’m thinking of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and the likes), because ultimately, if the listener doesn’t believe you, you will fail to incite his emotions, and if doesn’t feel, chances are he won’t buy whatever you’re selling. Do you find this to be so in painting, that there has to be a brutal honesty, a sharing of your soul, the blues, that ultimately makes the viewer feel something, even if we aren’t all Da Vinci’s or Ella Fitzgerald’s?
I think that painting in a sense is the same as music in the respect that you’re communicating something that’s unique, and with painting its unpredictable, you don’t quite know where it’s going to go. Music has certain form to it, especially if you’re a successful band, you’re not following a formula, but you naturally do things in a certain kind of way, and we call it style. With painting the journey is one with a certain amount of isolation, but you are trying to communicate something which is real, even though it’s abstract. When I’m trying to understand painting I see it as a sort of dance between reality and un-reality, abstraction and realism. Unless it’s photography, art is always a variation on that theme. You are trying to communicate something to somebody else; you’ve got to open the picture up so that somebody else can move into it, so they can see, no matter how abstract or strange it may be, you have to find a way to let them in. If you shut them out, they won’t get it. It’s quite mysterious, I don’t know quite how it works. All I know is you have to be unique, because it’s you, and then you get someone to try to understand what you’re trying to achieve. They may not even know what it’s all about, it doesn’t matter, as long as they feel something. It’s very difficult to explain, I don’t even know it myself, but I know when something works, and I know when something doesn’t. I think. (laughs)
And I guess this is more or less the same question, but do you feel that when an artist no longer feels the angst of his existential condition, when he is content with life, and by no means am I referring to the acquisition of money and fame, since this often only accentuates the suffering, but when they no longer feel the need to “wash away the daily dust from the soul” as Picasso put it, that there is not much else to share and his art becomes anodyne, that it withers into insignificance if you don’t have the blues.
(laughs) I don’t necessarily think that art is suffering. In order to achieve something you are constantly questioning yourself, it’s part of the process. I don’t go into the studio and paint the same thing, I do a series of things and then I move on. Like the guitar series, I did 8 or 9, partly because I was sitting in the studio and there was a guitar there so I said, ok, I’ll paint that. And I ended up doing them all, and now they’re prints, and that’s how it works. I may have gotten slightly away from the question, I think the angst is always going to be there because you’re always trying to move things forward. And there’s a big difference by the way between fame and success. Fame is something I’m not interested in. Success allows you freedom. For instance if I had been a painter from the onset, I seriously doubt I would be here talking to you now. Having been successful at something else has allowed me the indulgence of investigating this wonderful oddity that it art. I’ve been fascinated by it since I was 14 years old. I love looking at pictures and I love painting. Simple as that.
You have been passionate about art since you’re A levels, put aside by the gargantuan momentum the success of Dire Straits immersed you (perhaps drowned). Since the band dissolved, which must have been around ’95 since the last live show in La Rosaleda stadium (Zaragoza), you have been painting ever since. Do you find the artistic process to be similar and if so, in which way, to writing music, as a sort of exorcising of the soul, something that needs to come out that can’t be pinned down or rationalized, a liberation? Or is music more painful, more cerebral?
At the moment I do both. I’m just finishing a record now, I’m mixing it next week actually, and my writing has developed with my own song writing. This is my 5th or 6th set of albums, it’s something that I need to do, I still perform my own music. And painting is a different activity all together, it’s a solo experience, cerebral in its own way, often a very spontaneous thing, whereas music isn’t necessarily, music is structured, don’t’ ask me which comes first, the music or the words, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day you’re fitting a jig-saw puzzle together, there’s a thread to them all. So basically if you hear the new record you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.
Nowadays, there is a sort of contra current of the YouTube and Instagram generation of musicians, whereby you can make tremendous amounts of money with no recognition or fame (in fact, even changing pseudonyms to avoid monopoly accusations), all thanks to the metadata held in online data bases for publishers to pull from and sell to Hollywood and Netflix. So in a sense, these artists win in that they get to do what they love without the hangover of fame – and by hangover I mean the illusory sense of emptiness once you fall from the top (and that’s inescapable gravitas) and the difficulties of adapting to the real world after that inundation of the ego.
I think the difference between success and fame is very relevant here. Fame is something you choose to experience. It’s not something that immediately happens to you. Some people remain successful and don’t need the fame. You can choose to become famous if you want, but it has nothing to do with success. Success gives you freedom to choose. Fame does the opposite, you are no longer free, people are making choices for you and you can’t just walk into the pub unrecognized. I can go anywhere. If David Gilmore, one of the best guitar players in the world, walked in 99% of the people wouldn’t recognize him. Very occasionally someone will start staring at me in the tube and I go (looks down pretending to read a magazine), but it’s very rare, thankfully.
Did you find it hard to adapt? Was art a conduit for a smoother transition, or were you glad when the madness finally faded?
Not at all. When the band finished, it was a choice Mark and I made, and we made it together, I mean we played to 5 million people, 258 shows that year. That’s a hell of a figure, and after we were emotionally and physically exhausted, we said “we’ve got to stop”. We need to get out and do something different. And art had been calling me back, I went back to school, I went back to the basics, drawing, charcoal. In fact, I still now go to art classes. Unfortunately time moves on very quickly, in fact there’s a song I’ve written on this record, it’s called Double Time, life moves at double time, so you better move on.
Your abstract art, almost always in oil I believe, is quite eclectic and I can see more than one Spanish artists’ reminiscence in there, perhaps even Colombian… Who are the Ry Cooders’, the Robert Johnsons’, Chuck Berry’s or JJ Cales’ of your paintings?
I’m very fond of Peter Lanyon, De Kooning, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn is a favourite of mine… The list is endless, you feed off history, off the chocolate box if you like, and somehow you end up with your own voice, and I don’t quite know how that happens.
What inspires your palette? What you’re seeing or what you’re feeling? Or both?
It really depends what you’re thinking about at the time. I think my palette is pretty much my palette now, I don’t think I ever pull a colour directly out of the tube.. It’s a bit of a mystery I think. I think I’ve found mine, I’m not sure. I’m a very ordered person, but if you come into my studio it’s chaos there, and I think it has to be for there to be spontaneity.
How are your daughters (Jessica and DD)? They contributed in the booth for In The Darkness. Are they still singing? Do they support your art career?
Jessica is a painter, much better than I, she sings, she’s singing with me on Wednesday in the studio. DD, the younger one, has the voice of an angel, she was singing with me last week. They’re both very involved.
NY, London, Sydney, Singapore, Southern France…. Why Marbella? And where will your art take you next?
Wherever it leads us really. It’s great doing shows with Brian, we complement each other very well, different styles and colour palettes, there’s also a musical affinity which we share, so wherever it may take us really.
Do you listen to music whilst you paint? If so, to whom?
All the time, from Mozart to ZZ top, that affects the painting actually, it’s quite interesting.
Thank you so much Mr.Illsley!
Visit the exhibition at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía in Estepona, until the 10th of January. kempinski.com/estepona