As delivered on Thursday 25 and Friday 26 November, 2021.
My first reaction to this invitation was that I don’t really watch a lot of films.
So, whilst thinking about the things I do, the things that drive my practice and general interests, I happened to walk into my spare room at home and there amongst the graveyard of old DVDs on the shelf was Dig! looking at me from the shelf…
So, here’s a bit of a ramble about why this film is personally significant to me and some of the themes in it that certainly are in line with some of my interests and thoughts as an artist.
This film first came into my life when working in a record shop in Truro in the early noughties. I’d not long returned to Cornwall after studying my BA in Fine Art. I was working part-time in the shop, so that the rest of the time I could ‘concentrate on my practice.’
In reality, I was working part time in the shop and spending the rest of the time drinking too much, playing in bands and really doing everything but my work.
During that time a friend of mine was heading to LA where her Uncle Ted ‘managed loads of bands like Queens of the Stone Age…’ and ‘Uncle Ted knows Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction’ etc, etc. I was like yeah of course he does…
Three weeks or so later she returned with a bag of promo CDs and a promo copy of Dig!. ‘I brought you this, you must watch it, it made me think of you…you’re going to love it.’
At this point of my life I was dreaming of a future as an artist. Despite the lack of serious work actually happening, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I was playing gigs with bands and had started to put on small shows as a promoter. I felt I was just doing, but had no direction. At that time I had no idea how to even find the beginnings of any. Everything just felt foggy.
So, fast forward approx twenty years of exactly the same process and for those of you that don’t know me, I’m Liam and I’m an artist based in Redruth. I also run Auction House, a studio provider and project space in the town, where we also host exhibitions and have basic facilities for bands to rehearse and record.
Alongside being an artist, I’ve had a parallel life in the music industry, as a performer but also as a music promoter bringing bands to the South West.
Since 2005 when I started putting on shows in the shop with local bands, I’ve gone on to bring acts from all over the world to the region to play from small 50-capacity rooms right up to 4k capacity at the Plymouth Pavilions.
But a main part of my job has been booking acts for both the Boardmasters Festival in Newquay and its sister event NASS in Somerset.
Working on these shows has meant working alongside some of the biggest acts in the world. It’s been a privileged position to see how an industry works at that level and, most fascinating to me, to see what happens to art when it gets sucked fully into the business structures that ultimately support its growth.
I have to say that even now, after all these bands over all these years, where I personally still get most kicks is working with the bands right at the beginning. It’s when the art is pure, it’s still fully intact, or even not quite sure of itself just yet. It’s certainly not been compromised. I love this bit. There’s very special energy at this point, just before it becomes a commodity, or ultimately just another name on a poster.
As an artist, I always say that I’m interested in the space where one thing becomes another. I feel this has been heavily informed by this perspective I’ve had of working within the music industry in a very backstage role, and getting a unique perspective on understanding the offstage ‘rock star’ as opposed to the human, or the artist, behind it.
This translates into my practice as being interested in when something is considered to be an artwork and when it is not – where the edges of an artwork can sit – and thinking about how an artwork can be experienced, and where our experience of it starts and ends.
In making connections between seemingly disparate things I’m interested in challenging hierarchies surrounding the artist, audience and gallery and working in ways that talk to people beyond the art world, to engage different communities into hopefully sharing a positive experience of contemporary art.
But within all of this – and a parallel I make with this film – is that it’s also about questioning what it means to be an artist.
I’m continually fascinated by my own drive to do this stuff, to go to the studio, to make art. This absolute need to do it…
…the sacrifices I’ve made personally to be so bloody-minded about staying on this path…to the point that I’m even here now talking to you about it.
It all strikes be as kind of crazy.
So, what’s the pay off?
What does success look like to the artist? Is it about being part of a community and making and doing and being fully engaged? Or is it about a major museum retrospective, or selling thousands of pounds worth of work (as nice as that would be)?
…and that’s where all of these interests – and ultimately where I’m going here segue into this movie…
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this documentary tells two stories gathered over seven years and 1500 hours of footage. It contrasts the successes and failures of two bands that are destined (or so it seems) for stardom.
The first, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, led by the troubled genius of Anton Newcombe, is a portrait of his total unwillingness to compromise, set against a backdrop of out and out sex, drugs and rock and roll. A version of that world seen here often at its bleakest.
The second is their good friends and constant admirers, the Dandy Warhols, led by the comparatively level-headed but not nearly as talented Courtney Taylor.
What to me is of most interest here – among many other subplots that could be taken from this film – is this story of art, commerce, success and being a true artist, and how these different measures can be seen from different perspectives at different – or the even the same – time and mean different things to different people. There is no right way.
But also, what happens at the point where art stops and business starts? When does it get to the point where one band is spending half a million dollars to make a music video that they’re never going to pay for and the other is making a record in one day for under $20 in their front room. Is one better than the other?
Based of Anton’s evident jealousy of the Dandy’s success, but their unfaltering respect for Anton’s prolific-ness, I’d say maybe not.
First becoming friends in 1995, united by a passion for 60s psychedelia and a mission ‘to get a full-scale revolution going on’, there’s a wonderful tightrope we the audience get to walk in this documentary that is exactly within this space where one thing becomes another, and allegiance to one camp or the other feels hard to pin down.
Anton sees the Warhols as sell-outs, with their mobile phone jingles and permanent cycle on MTV. Yet the Warhols’ quite rightly state, ‘It’s hard to start a revolution when you remain underground’. Who knows?
One needs the other, but maybe the other will always flourish in the end?
I could go on, but to recount any more details from the film to help articulate these thoughts further would ruin some of the grime and grit of this love affair between two bands that you are about to witness.
To bring this up to date and to add another little twist of fate for me, I’ve since worked with BJM twice, after bringing them to Falmouth in both 2016 and 2018. I remain unscathed.
Although a friend who I got in to do the lights on the last show, who had no idea who BJM were, did say had she watched this film in advance, she’d have never agreed to it!
Oh, and finally…when I was doing the tech advance on the first show back in 2016 their agent introduced me via email to their tour manager. His email reply opened, ‘Hey Liam, I believe we have a mutual friend…’
Of course, it was Uncle Ted.