In Focus

Don't Blow Your Own Horn - Phil Collins and Suzanne Weaver in Conversation

The following are edited excerpts from a series of taped conversations between Phil Collins and Suzanne Weaver, Scotland, May 7 –10, 2007.

SW

Once the recording is on and the tape is rolling, I become so self-conscious. Why is that? Do you feel self-conscious?

PC

Yeah, completely—so stop making me feel extra self–conscious, Suzanne! I was bad enough before. No, honestly, I think at heart a lot of my work is built precisely around that. When you start recording, what is it that you immediately lose? How does it feel to clam up? Maybe it’s because the minute a camera comes out, or a taperecorder appears, I start acting woefully out of character, as if I’m in a court of law about to be sent down for fifteen years for bad behavior.

SW

Can anyone act natural?

PC

Well, some people can do a better job than others, I have to say. Some people seem to eke out a lifelong career out of the appearance of self–confidence. I only hope that inside they’re a horrible mess of nerves and doubt.

One thing about recording devices though is that while they inhibit some kinds of activities, they definitely provoke others. This tape recorder, for example, may possibly encourage us to solemnly meditate upon the more profound sides of life because we hope to —

SW

Immortalize our brilliance?

PC

Mmm, yes, precisely. Please.

SW

You were talking about your work being what happens in front of a recording device, a camera —

PC

Yes, it is. I mean, I’ve always been fascinated how in photography, since its earliest days, there seems to exist an acute concern with the relationship between portraiture and authority. Among the Victorians, there is a an overwhelming interest in specifically marginalized characters—criminals, hysterics, homosexuals—and how the photographic portrait might yield up otherwise invisible asocial traits. These photographs have always had a devastating effect and been an enormous influence on me.

Equally with film. I’ve always seen the person behind camera as a central element of the equation. Would you take your clothes off if there wasn’t a camera present and me behind it? Would you sing a karaoke song if we weren’t recording? The witness to these very fragile and beautiful moments, the person who sits and takes the picture, is very much implicated—the one who directly influences the activity.

SW

I would like to discuss influences that have motivated your choices in content and form. How has music influenced you?

PC

Pop music for me, as for you, is something that has profoundly affected me from an early age. As a child I used to sing myself to sleep. And sometimes wake myself up singing. From about 1978 onward, I began tape-recording the charts and filling ring-bound notebooks with the careers of forgettable pop stars. My fingers were forever on record-play-pause. (In fact, my little fingers are still damaged by the stretch!) I also amassed huge scrapbooks on Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Yazoo, Soft Cell. Even now I can recall my horror when David Bowie reincarnated himself as Margaret Thatcher in 1983. From that day on, I was definitely on the lookout for something new.

SW

What touched you about Bowie?

PC

I think that initially it was the fundamental sexual terror that Bowie inspired in me. I remember distinctly fingering the cover of my older cousin's copy of Aladdin Sane, praying that no one would come into the room as I traced my fingers over the record sleeve, unable to tear myself away. I knew it would be hideously embarrassing to be found staring so intently at this alien, whose implicit promise seemed that he could somehow liberate you from the everyday.

SW

When did you discover The Smiths?

PC

I was thirteen when The Smiths were first on Top of the Pops. It was their second single, “This Charming Man,” which went to about number twenty-five. When The Smiths arrived, you have to remember what an appalling wasteland the charts were, and how little they reflected the desolation of Britain, especially the North, at that time. You had mass unemployment and inner-city riots all over the country, and at the same time “Club Tropicana” or “Ay Ay Ay Moosey” on every station. Doddery old has-beens rolling up their shoulder-padded jackets and squirting in their Sun-In. The air was horribly stale with the crass but discernible waft of cashing in and cover versions—pop being hung out to dry. If you look at the charts of 1982 or 1983, they are still quite physically and psychologically disturbing.

And then The Smiths arrived like avenging angels, assailing the Thacherite confection of pop with a sharpened scythe, and I was literally swept away. They unquestionably governed my formative years.

I stole “What Difference Does It Make?” from the local mobile disco and from then on I was hooked. I loved the whole package: the cover stars, the Pat Phoenix interview, the Smash Hits cover with Pete Burns, the appearance on Pop Quiz . Merciless taste on a grand scale. I got “Hatful Of Hollow” and “Meat Is Murder,” and became a vegetarian at the tender age of thirteen, living on this horrifying gruel they called Beanfeast. No, really! Bean feast!

SW

Your obsession or addiction has been a constant throughout your life?

PC

Yes, it has been probably the only current in my life for the past twenty-four years. I’ve played their records every single day, and in that sense I’ve always approached The Smiths karaoke as much as a fan, on a pretty equal level as the singers, as I have as an artist. I really do understand what it is to live with this thing.

SW

And then there are the clubs . . . when did you start going to clubs?

PC

I started going to clubs when I was about fourteen, when I would trundle into Manchester or Liverpool on the train and head down to the Number One Club, Berlin Bar, the Lisbon, or Planet X, and later to the Hacienda. I worked in the cloakroom, and later the bar, of the Hacienda for four years, whilst I was a student, when it was like the Wild West in there. Of course, it was a dreadful mistake working in the cloakroom when at four a.m. you’re suddenly faced with thousands of people completely off their tits, unsure where they’d put their ticket, what their coat looked like, or even what their name was. It didn’t help either that I felt exactly the same way.

SW

Let’s focus on your three-part video project, the world won’t listen . Why did you travel to Bogotá in 2004, the year you began the first part?

PC

Cocaine, paramilitaries, and great salsa music—Suzanne, who could resist? the world won’t listen began in a bar in Bogotá. I went there briefly in early 2004, to give a couple of lectures at the university and art school, and had been going out in the evening, as you do. Bogotá is a city of around ten million, and in the bars around Séptima, one of its main run-down thoroughfares, you can drink aguadiente, the local firewater, and stumble around inelegantly to the best salsa you’ll hear in the world.

It was when I visited La Rebeca, an artist-run space in the city where I met Michèle Faguet, who would be instrumental in the realization of the project, that the idea started to germinate. I knew I wanted to go back to Colombia, so I did, and I spent a couple of months there in the autumn of 2004.

Bogotá is a city where paranoia is firmly cemented into basic social relations. Armed guards at Starbucks. The taxi driver gives you a code when he picks you up, and then hilariously (or sensibly, you be the judge) you give him the last four digits of your phone number, so he knows you’re not going to kidnap him. And away you go, into this seemingly endless, chaotic metropolis. Istanbul and Jakarta have the similar sense of scale and unknowability, and it was probably some of those things that, at least partly, motivated me to work there.

SW

Why did you select The Smiths’s 1987 album The World Won’t Listen?

PC

It could well have been the title, although whatever I picked would have surely provoked a bun fight among the rarely satisfied, pernickety Smiths fans.

SW

What was your production process? For example, how was the music created for the karaoke machine? How did you solicit Smiths' fans?

PC

The re-creation of the album in its entirety was like climbing a mountain. Michèle [Faguet] introduced me to Alejandro Gomezcaceres Bertel, the guitarist from Los Aterciopelados, Colombia’s biggest rock group, who had, I found out by chance, busked “Bigmouth Strikes Again” ten years earlier on the streets of London. What serendipity! Alejo also had squirreled away a dusty copy of Guitar Player magazine with an interview with Johnny Marr about his notoriously complicated tunings—which was lucky for us as we hadn’t got any sheet music. So we relied on Alejo’s magnificent ear and patience to rerecord, quite precisely, each and every guitar line for the entire album, note for note. I don’t know if you can imagine what an endeavor it was. (But believe me—it was!)

The album was mixed at Voces e Imagen studio in Bogotá. Drummer, bassist, backing singers—everybody, unbelievably—learned each line by ear and proceeded to lay them down with effortless grace and real dedication. During this period I worked with a couple of video editors to make the visuals. The lyrics would appear at exactly the right moment, line by line. This is a karaoke machine for initiates and devotees, but more importantly, it’s a karaoke machine that works like any other, like one you may find down at the local.

Parallel to all this frantic activity, we set out on a publicity offensive. I lectured in any college that would have us—some of that was very memorable for me—and ran a citywide poster campaign with beautiful block-print posters that look somewhere between an ad for a boxing match and one for a political rally. We flyered incessantly at every bar in town until we bored everyone stupid, went on the radio in the evenings and TV in the mornings. I wanted to have the widest possible draw for the project, and to try at least to offer it to people from all over the city, every age, every background. In the end, we had one participant who flew in from Medellín. And they say the drugs don’t work!

SW

What is fascinating is that the performers sang line by line in English, which is not their language.

PC

Yes, and in all of the locations, some people had a very rudimentary grasp of English. But they knew the songs so devastatingly well through repetition, every breath and every ad lib, which, considering the importance of lyrics in the songs, their arch and archaic constructions, as well as the prelinguistic wail at the heart of them, is pretty amazing. In Colombia people often did simultaneous or prepared translations into Spanish. Which, you might say, is going a bit far and showing off, but, well, I am very easily impressed.

SW

There must be a relationship between MTV, American Idol, and karaoke machines and the contestants on these shows being so slick. It is just a feeling I have because so many of the singers seem to be trying to be the next Mariah Carey, who I think is terribly uninteresting.

PC

With American Idol, there is no real reason for it to be so sickeningly conservative. Why can’t we have someone on American Idol singing the Cocteau Twins or Tiny Tim? It should be a program that is wide open, but every single season it is about complete conformity around the idea of the songbook. Karaoke, of course, is egalitarian by design. If you have had enough to drink and you fancy it, anybody can do it. Except that there is nothing anyone in their right mind would want to sing.

Other people sometimes find karaoke embarrassing, or laughable, or delusional—the idea that someone gets up and thinks they can sing. But I find it moving and incredibly courageous. As a format, karaoke offers a promise of completion—this act will somehow make me whole—but at the same time it’s predicated on the idea of vulnerability and failure, with its countless false starts, its blind terror. The way the pub falls away, and you can clearly see the spot where someone stands. The way they find themselves lost in the middle of a song, but unable to escape until it finishes. It’s like a mild form of heroism.

SW

What is the relationship between the karaoke machine and the singer? Is the person who is singing with the karaoke machine wanting to be the performer whose lyrics are being shown on the screen? Or is it something else?

PC

Karaoke is a form of joyful treason in which you quite materially supplant your idol. So it’s different from singing into the hairbrush in your bedroom. And the beauty of this kind of treachery is that for the first time you are not singing along, you are in fact the singer, suddenly thrown into the spotlight without a guiding voice, which makes for all kinds of uncertainties and mistakes. In that very simple sense, it’s what makes it so compelling for me. Karaoke also raises all the issues of the “original” and the “copy,” but who is to say which is the most valid? Is a South American performance of a desperate northern English love song any less, or more, valid than a northern English performance? If The Smiths symbolize a sense of prototypical Englishness, then this Englishness is in no way in and of itself stable. The Smiths themselves were, of course, all from Irish families.

The first time I ever did karaoke was in Dickens in Manchester, a gay club above a chip shop that felt like it had never made it past the fifties. It had a stinky chicken-in- a-basket café in the middle and lots of wig-on-wonky, hard-as-nails trannies at the bar. No matter how many times you went, a small shutter opened at the front door and, before they let you in, someone asked if you’d been before, and then, to prove it, where the toilets were. People were always saying Julie Goodyear was a regular, but I don’t know. I never saw her, or she was very well camouflaged. So, Dickens was my first time. I sang “If I Fell” by The Beatles, and, luckily for me, everyone joined in.

SW

During the filming, it must have been intense with you and these other fans working together.

PC

Singing is such an intimate act, and almost entirely transformative, so it’s doubly intense when it becomes shared in a public situation. It can quite literally take you out of yourself, which has very little to do with whether you can carry a tune. Like Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, Morrissey was always a singer who encouraged passion rather than perfection. In “Sing Your Life,” off Kill Uncle , his 1991 solo album, he sings:

and make no mistake, my friend

your pointless life will end

but before you go

can you look at the truth?

You have a lovely singing voice

a lovely singing voice

and all of those

who sing on key

they stole the notion

from you and me

A validation of the amateur. And who ever wanted pop music to be sung by someone who can necessarily hold a tune anyway?

You’re right when you say the production set of the world won’t listen was intense. Maybe it’s because the music itself and the vocals are so unremittingly passionate that the fans are very serious about the event. Jakarta and Bandung were actually the best examples of how prepared they were. Very few British bands played concerts in Indonesia (or, for that matter, Colombia or Turkey) so there was an overdetermined response to the arrival of our very modest karaoke machine, which, because it was not a joke in itself, and because it treated the idea of interaction in an impeccably serious manner, was able to meet this intensity head on. When people heard the backing tracks and realized that they were not cobbled together in an afternoon on a Casio synthesizer in a bathroom, but were made by a full band playing a full album, they could see this was an act of realization, of becoming, in some way, which is, quite naturally, a very intense enterprise.

SW

In each city, how did you create the best possible situation for filming in nightclubs and other places?

PC

Well, that changed as we went along according to the budget, or what we had been able to negotiate that afternoon. But generally it’s always been important to find somewhere very central, where people can drink, where we can play our music very loud, at all times of day or night, but where the space would also be very focused and concentrated. In Jakarta I recorded for four days in Déjà Vu (I know!), a nightclub that had somewhat lost its way and was now empty except for the barmaid singing . . . yes, karaoke. To herself. But in Bandung we were able to secure Gedung Merdeka, the Asia-Afrika Conference Center, a building of enormous importance for the history of the Non-Aligned Movement that Indonesia co-founded. And in Istanbul, I had a nightclub, Balans Music Hall, for four days and four long nights on the promise we’d throw a party there at the end. How was I to know that twelve hundred people would turn up on the night, when the karaoke version of The World Won’t Listen was recreated live, which at times descended into complete chaos, most memorably when everybody stormed the stage for “Oscillate Wildly.”

SW

What kind of cameras did you use?

PC

Whatever I can afford, really. There’s this idea in art that things simply appear, just like that, out of thin air, but what with money not growing on trees it can take me a year or more to save up to go and make a work. The Colombian and the Indonesian chapters weren’t made within any institutional frame, or for any other reason than I wanted to make them. Bogotá is the most anti-glam—it’s a Canon XL1 left on autofocus—so there’s this constant tension between things being clear and then quite badly blurred. And then in Istanbul, and later in Indonesia, we started renting modest studio cameras.

SW

When did you decide to do the second part? Was it when you were invited to be in the Ninth Istanbul Biennial?

PC

I’d wanted to make a trilogy right from the beginning but at first the idea was to record all three in South America. Brazil, Chile, Argentina . . . hell—maybe even Uruguay! But in Istanbul I was put in touch with a fantastic visual arts producer Derya Demir, who led me by the hand to all the dank, claustrophobic basement bars of the city where I was instantly convinced that we might be able to run the project successfully. So in the process, it became obvious that we could tour the machine to different continents. Besides, it was always important for me that the production should stay outside first-world circuits of pop and cultural industries, and in places where it might appear as much an imposition as a gift.

SW

When you went to Indonesia, there must have been new challenges. You arrived at the time Jakarta was experiencing the worst flood in centuries, thousands of people, I think around three hundred thousand, were displaced and fifty died.

PC

Yes, it was bad timing in lots of ways. I went over Christmas to do a recce, so I spent a very memorable Christmas Day alone in a red-light bar being served cake by a sympathetic madame. I hadn’t noticed it was that kind of establishment, until it dawned on me that every light in the place was actually red. Oh, dear! It was quite lonely floating around the streets of Bandung, even though on every street corner there was someone serenading the traffic. Honestly—every street was full of singers singing to car windows! When I saw this and started following bands like The Brandals and Goodnight Electric around, and then when I heard it was the fourth most populous country in the world but that the last international artist to sing there had been Phil Collins ten years ago, I knew I had to go back. Jakarta also has a strong mod and skin scene — Lambrettas and Harringtons and oxblood Doc Martens. And in Malaysia I unaccountably ended up at a skinhead party where the mood got wilder the more bottles got smashed. I'd never seen anything like it. Well not in Kuala Lumpur, obviously. I booked my return ticket almost on the spot.

When I went back in January, Jakarta was completely flooded. There were outbreaks of dengue fever, and around 70 percent of the city was affected by the flood waters. So there I was, with my rucksack and my packs of duty-free cigarettes, in a godforsaken Internet café, trying to organize a Smiths karaoke in the middle of a major disaster. In a funny way, it fitted the mood quite well.

SW

How many fans came and how much time was each allotted?

PC

Indonesia was the only country where I filmed in two different cities. Apart from Jakarta, Clarissa Adinegoro, my brilliant co-producer, and I felt that Bandung, as the spiritual home of indie music in Java, couldn’t be ignored. In Jakarta and Bandung we had a really big turnout, the biggest by far—about 132 appointments, and many of those are, of course, groups of people. So we must have done something right. Most people get about twenty to thirty minutes where they basically call the shots. There’s this very charged atmosphere on the set, with people meeting, having a bevvie, smoking, and chatting before they’re called up. And most people sing in a way well beyond the frame, the songs becoming very explicitly and self-consciously a love letter to elsewhere.

SW

What is the process of editing? It is must be a tedious and lengthy task. How do you choose who stays in and who gets cut?

PC

It’s torturous because you’re so attached to everyone, and you’re looking at them not in an objective way, but like a lover. I’m often completely paralyzed by choice because, well there’s just so much. I have reams of tapes of unused takes of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” and “Ask,” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” In Turkey “Half A Person” was enormously popular, while in Indonesia the favorite by far was “Asleep.”

SW

Let’s talk about your exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, where all three videos will be shown together. Besides my winning personality and persistence, what interested you about presenting this project in Dallas?

PC

The last few minutes of Live in Dallas, at the Starplex Amphitheater in 1991, have seared themselves into my memory for all time. There’s a massive stage invasion at the end of the gig, during “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” where the audience literally takes over the stage as our hero beats a hasty retreat, abandoning the band to finish the song. Well, so would anyone . . . have you seen those orange cotton shorts and the mullets? The final moments of the front row weeping to an enormous backdrop of Edith Sitwell as Shirley Bassey’s “Ave Maria” booms through the sound system—Suzanne, there was no way we couldn’t do it in Dallas.

SW

Why is the work envisaged as three parts now become one complete piece?

PC

It’s so exciting to imagine all the pieces of the jigsaw finally coming together, like a chorus, or a fight. I’d wanted something bigger than you could possibly encounter in a single glance, something that would open up in room after room, delivering the same content, again and again, till you would like nothing more than to crawl out on your hands and knees and go and smoke yourself senseless in a corner of a bar somewhere. That is, unless there’s a smoking ban where you are.

SW

Not surprising, Dallas has a liberal non-smoking law as well as a liberal gun-toting law. So, if you have a permit, you can take your concealed weapon into a bar (if it does not open up to a restaurant) and smoke yourself, as you say, senseless. I have one more question about your Dallas exhibition. What are the screenprints that have been added?

PC

These are all blowups of the pages from British rock weeklies, to which an adolescent Morrissey had obsessively written in the seventies. Magazines like Sounds , the New Musical Express, Melody Maker , and Record Mirror , whose letter pages were an extremely funny battleground between fans, at such an important time in music history, between, let’s say, prog rock and punk. Morrissey’s letters are interesting in that they don’t deviate in any way from anything we know of him. It almost seems as if his tastes haven’t particularly changed and were either fully formed, or arrested, at the age of fourteen or fifteen. He is mainly writing asking for more coverage of the New York Dolls and Jobriath, which, thirty years later, he’s still doing. But as social documents, the pages themselves speak of this slightly more amateurish and desperate world of pen pals, and fan clubs, and yes, hair salons in Hounslow. I mean, it sounds exactly like the world of The Smiths.

SW

Looking back, how has this four-year, three-part video project changed your work? Has it changed you?

PC

Well, I guess you could say that it has changed my life. I’ve been working on it for four years now, so it’s played a really central part of my life during that time. And through it, I’ve had the good fortune to meet hundreds of people who have touched me in ways I’d never have expected. How will someone give of themselves in such a situation? And how carefully must we, who are entrusted with this tenderness, handle it?

I think the world won’t listen marked a shift in my practice as well in that it provoked a move for the work away from the symbolic terrain of representation and toward its literally becoming the thing itself, a modest but real insertion into the social fabric. So, it’s not a representation of a karaoke machine, it is a karaoke machine; it’s not a representation of the press conference, it is a press conference. And, if nothing had been recorded, well, really, the work would still exist.

Excerpt from

"Don't Blow Your Own Horn," in Phil Collins: the world won't listen, eds. Suzanne Weaver and Siniša Mitrović (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 85-98.