n. A mass or coating of fine, light fibers, hairs, or particles; down: the fuzz on a peach.
v. fuzzed, fuzz·ing, fuzz·es
1. To cover with fine, light fibers, hairs, or particles.
2. To make blurred or indistinct: fuzzing the difference between the two candidates; worked quickly to fuzz up the details of the scandal.
v.intr. To become blurred or obscure.
Ursula 1000 is the alter ego of Brooklyn based producer/DJ Alex Gimeno. However, you would be hard pressed trying to categorize his brand of music. Both his albums and mix sessions have taken on a broad scope of retro tinged spy grooves, bumping Latin disco-funk, hints of post-punk, electro, go-go, and sleazy glam rock. His collaborations with Dr. Luke, Shag, Cristina, Los Amigos Invisibles, Misty Roses, Federico Aubele to name a few, brought forth sheer magic on his four previous albums — The Now Sound of Ursula 1000, Kinda’ Kinky, Here Comes Tomorrow and Mystics.
On his upcoming E.P. entitled FUZZ, Gimeno tackles the garage rock sounds of the mid-late 1960’s. Named after the guitarist’s fuzz pedal, (the tool used to produce a rich form of sonic distortion) FUZZ drips in snarling guitars, savage drums and creepy Farfisa organs. Inspired by the genre’s elder statesmen like Count Five and The Sonics to revivalists like The Gruesomes, Ursula 1000 takes his obsession with the period’s soundtrack and flips it for a new generation of listeners.
The E.P. features the incomparable Fred Schneider from The B-52s on opening song, “Hey You!” In the late ‘70s, Schneider and his Athens, GA party band paved the way of mixing B-movie retro trashiness with punk/new wave. Decades later, Ursula can be found doing the same thing with his blending of vintage grooves and modern electronica. But how did their unique collaboration come about? As with most chance encounters, serendipity was in the air, literally. “We were on a flight together; I had just DJ’ed in Milwaukee, I believe. When I got on the plane, there he was sitting in business class by himself. We have a mutual friend who had been trying to get me to mix B-52s stuff. When we finally landed in New York, I had a good icebreaker so I approached him. I mentioned how I was a big fan.” However, Gimeno was somewhat taken aback when the “Rock Lobster” singer turned out to be a fan of his own work. “I don’t know if he said he had all of my records but he did say he had a ton. I thought, oh shit, crazy. But then again he is an avid collector and DJ in his own right. I figured it wasn’t so out of the ordinary that he would dig it. And from there we just swapped info.”
Shortly after that initial meeting, Ursula 1000 was approached to do a remix for Schneider’s side project, The Superions. “Totally Nude Island” was their debut single that was released in late 2008. “It came out pretty cool,” Gimeno says in a modest tone. “I was just given this a cappella and it was Fred reading a weird, twisted Hawaiian love poem. Looking back, I could have gone anywhere with it. “
But where is Ursula 1000 going now? Delving into the raw and primitive realm of garage rock, naturally. “I’m just fascinated by that period,” Ursula enthusiastically states. “My first couple of records I was trying to focus on the more polished, groovier end of the‘60s sound. The bossa nova, Barbarella-soundtrack kinda stuff. With this album, I went back to the 60s; I don’t know what it is about that time. Now, looking back on it they are calling that era ‘garage-punk’, a lot of The Sonics stuff and groups like that. But at the time when those records came out, I am not quite sure what they were calling it. It was so trashy and so different than what was being played on the radio; it was not polished sounding whatsoever. I especially wonder how Beatles fans or Rolling Stones fans reacted to those types of albums. The bands I was inspired by did not have the type of budget to go into the studio and make a big, clean production. And I am talking as early as ’63 and ’64.”
Gimeno brings up an interesting point during our conversation, wondering if the now revered genre of “garage punk” was born out of necessity. “What I am curious about is if these obscure bands wanted to actually make a sound that was more polished and put together but simply did not have the resources to do so. The end product was this really rough sound that over four decades later we are finding to be brilliant.” However, this mix of high and low his isn’t only specific to the world of rock and roll. It can even be heard in old reggae and ska records. “Interestingly enough, the reggae musicians didn’t have the budget to purchase new tapes so they would record over existing tapes creating a scratchy, hissy sound in the process. The idea is very similar to what was going on with Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints at the time. Just because some of the images were off-register or not crystal clear did not mean they were discarded. The accidents worked by adding another dimension and creating a new dynamic when appearing next to the flawless elements. Crazy accidents . . .”
Ever the jack-of-all-trades, FUZZ is not the only project keeping Ursula 1000 occupied these days. When he is not traveling the globe DJing at places like The Fabric and The Big Chill Festival, he can be found spinning at his home residencies at Trophy Bar and The Commodore. If that was not enough, he also has a radio show, Guilty Pleasures on BrooklynRadio.com where he plays an obscure selection of songs from his extensive record library. And if you find yourself in the presence of Ursula 1000, don’t ask him what he is listening to. “Oh, don’t ask me that! I listen to a million things. It’s easier asking me ‘what did you listen to . . .today?’ I have about 15,000 records at home that I can always look to for some type of inspiration. Or I try and find new stuff and re-school myself.” –Daniel Alonso
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Originally published in Issue 5 of WANTED
Fresh off a 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Blondie is back together and getting ready for the release of their upcoming ninth studio album, Panic of Girls. During a recent catch-up with Origivation writer Daniel Alonso, guitarist and co-founder Chris Stein discussed getting the hang of writing music again, Lady Gaga’s attractive freakishness, and “Blondie books.”
In a recent BBC documentary, Iggy Pop begged the question, “Is there a really decent American pop music group since Blondie?” Without hesitation he curtly answered his own question, “I don’t think so.”
When you think about it, the Godfather of Punk is right.
But what was so extraordinary about Blondie was their ability to transcend the realm of “pop”. The group voted “Least Likely To Succeed” (the discouraging moniker given to them during their early CBGB days) evolved into musical visionaries. They were the punk band fearless enough to embrace electronic sounds with their hit “Heart of Glass” at the height of the “disco sucks” era. On later albums, they incorporated reggae and island sounds. And six years before Aerosmith and Run DMC collaborated on their classic rap-rock version of “Walk This Way”, Blondie released the groundbreaking single “Rapture”. The song is considered to be revolutionary, becoming one of the first hit singles to involve rap music. If that wasn’t enough, it was also the first rap video ever played on MTV. And even though the name Blondie may conjure up visions of their striking front woman, Debbie Harry will be the first to tell you that none of it could have been possible without her bandmate, ex-lover and best friend, Chris Stein.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Chris’ earliest memories of music are of his mother Estelle singing songs from films like Fellini’s “La Strada.” As a teenager, he gravitated towards folk music and artists like Bob Dylan before discovering The Beatles and The Stones. “My head paralleled the rise of all these groups when they first came about. I feel really lucky that I was born in 1950 and see all that stuff,” he says. “When I was a kid most of my heroes were sixty year old black men. All those great blues guys like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. But when Debbie and I started working together in the mid-70s, I sort of lost my fan status. I started paying less attention to what was going on around me musically. I think I am paying more attention to modern music now than I did in the ’70s and ’80s.”
New York City was in a state of decay in the early 1970’s. Bankrupt and crime-ridden, the Big Apple was more akin to the Wild West. Apartments were burned out and completely abandoned. Building facades were reminiscent of the destroyed ruins at the end of WWII. While the grime of the city made it undesirable for many, it was this same sleazy splendor that offered many young people the opportunity live cheaply in Manhattan. It was the perfect climate to thrive as an artist. It was during this time that Chris enrolled at the School of Visual Arts to pursue his love of photography. It was one day at school he noticed a flyer advertising an up-and-coming rock and roll band. Initially he thought it was an ad for a drag act as the photo depicted a group of androgynous young guys in heavy makeup and donning women’s clothes. That band he soon learned was the New York Dolls. He remembers of the time, “I just saw it going on and it just seemed like a cool thing. I was always going to the Fillmore East. I saw a lot of amazing bands when I was a kid, pivotal concerts and all that stuff. I was at Woodstock and the whole deal.” Chris found himself drawn to the downtown glam rock scene but it was the Dolls’ opening band, The Magic Tramps, that he had more of an affinity for. Chris began working as their roadie and eventually graduated to guitarist. He fit the bill perfectly with his long hair, penchant for dark eye makeup and towering platform boots. But the era was short lived and by the mid ’70s, the glitter was starting to fade making way for the approaching new wave.
During the summer of 1974, Chris was invited to see a friend’s band play at a little dive bar on West 28th street, the now defunct Boburn Tavern. The band was a campy, all-girl trio known as the Stillettoes. That night would change his life forever. As legend has it, his eyes met with one of the girls during the show and it was love at first sight. That girl was a shy (then brunette) Debbie Harry. In their 1982 memoir “Making Tracks,” she recounts that evening. “I couldn’t see his face, only the outline of his head, but I could feel him looking at me and I was very nervous so I delivered a lot of songs to him. We had a psychic connection right away, which struck me particularly because I’d previously only had such strong psychic connections with girlfriends.” The pair soon began working together when Elda Gentile, one of the Stillettoes, asked Chris to join the group.
The Stillettoes began performing at a biker bar on the Bowery called CBGB. Owner Hilly Kristal had opened the bar in New York’s East Village, originally intending it to be a venue for live country music. In fact, the club’s name was an acronym for country, bluegrass and blues. Unbeknownst to Hilly and his patrons, the unassuming bar was to become the birthplace of the burgeoning U.S. punk scene. Bands like Television, the Ramones and Talking Heads would all call the club home. Hilly gave them the freedom to carve their own musical identities. Stein recalls the club’s unconventional character, “CB’s was just like going into somebody’s crummy basement. There were big stuffed easy chairs and Hilly had these dogs that would crap all around. It was all very funky.” However, Stein is dubious if a scene like that could flourish in today’s world. “You have to have a fortune to live in the city! How can you have a band when you have to worry about coming up with $2,000 every month for rent? I am unsure if something like that will ever happen again.”
But close to four decades ago, the milieu was alive and gaining momentum as the bands honed their talents. Rock photographer Bob Gruen put it best, “people tend to look back and say great bands were playing there. No, the bands that were playing there got great later on. Having had the place to be bad, they got good.”
Chris and Debbie got their chance to “be bad” when they parted ways with the Stillettoes and decided to start their own band. They would go through several incarnations (Angel and the Snake and Blondie & The Banzai Babies to name a few) and line-up changes before becoming Blondie. Joining Debbie and Chris was drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri. But even in a world of musical amateurs, Blondie was looked upon as a joke. Rock lore has it that Patti Smith refused to have Blondie on the same bill at CBGBs. Their music was considered fluff compared to the likes of Smiths’ serious brand of poetry-inspired rock or Suicide’s eerie, avant-garde sound. And at a time when women in rock dressed and acted like one of the boys, Debbie skillfully created her Blondie stage persona to be both strong and defiant as well as glamorous and sexy.
It was that glamour and her obvious visual appeal that would prove helpful during those early days. Chris’ photographs of Debbie garnered the group its very first media attention, being published in music magazines like Punk, New York Rocker and Creem. In true punk D.I.Y. fashion, Chris would set up a small cyc in their Bowery loft to photograph his girlfriend. And long before professional stylists, their neighbor Stephen Sprouse would aid the couple by outfitting them in his mod-inspired designs. Interestingly enough, Stein admits, “in a lot of cases people saw pictures of Debbie before they heard the music.” To this day Chris continues to be photographically inclined. “I just always liked doing photography and do a lot of digital stuff now. I may go back to film; I’m not sure. Maybe this year I’ll get a couple more books out. I have probably about three books of stuff. I need to get a little more aggressive about it. Everyone I know who is a photographer has done a Blondie book.”
Blondie’s hard work and persistence paid off. In 1976 they were signed to Private Stock Records and released their self-titled debut album. Soon after, they were chosen by Mr. Pop himself to be the opening act on his tour for The Idiot record. (David Bowie played piano in Iggy’s band and joined the group on the road.) Yet while success eluded them in their own country, the girl-group inspired B-side “In The Flesh” went to number one in Australia. Richard Gottehrer, who came to fame as a songwriter in the ’60s with classic songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy”, worked with the band to produce their first two records. He was the perfect person to help form the group’s early sound which was then a marriage of the Shangri-Las and raw garage rock.
By 1978, Blondie’s new record company Chrysalis brought in Australian producer Mike Chapman to work with the band on their third album, Parallel Lines. Previously, Chapman produced early ’70s hits for The Sweet, Mud and Suzi Quatro. He would become incredibly influential to the Blondie story by transforming the little punk band from the Lower East Side into something commercial and worldwide. Chapman would go on to be their producer up until the group’s demise in 1982. Parallel Lines spawned several hits across the pond but it was a song that the band had been toying with since their early CBGB days that helped crack the American market. “Once I Had A Love” was a mellow reggae number Chris and Debbie wrote in ’75. Influenced by Kraftwerk and Donna Summer, Chapman and the band meticulously reworked the song into a pulsing disco number. Renamed “Heart Of Glass”, after the Werner Herzog film, the song propelled the band to the top of the charts making them the number one band in the world. That album would go on to sell over six million copies and is now considered a classic.
Even with their new superstar status, Chris and Debbie managed to stay true to their bohemian roots. This is most evident in the cable-access show TV Party, which Stein co-hosted with writer and friend Glenn O’Brien. There was an anarchistic element to their show — from the on-air drug use to what has been described as Chris’ favorite part, the belligerent phone calls from viewers. The show had an intimate quality and it became the intersection where modern music, art and fashion all collided. One week Mick Jones of The Clash would appear as their guest; the next week David Byrne might be performing. Debbie would sometimes be in the control room and oftentimes painter Jean-Michel Basquiat manned the camera. In a small TV studio in midtown Manhattan, the famous mingled with the soon-to-be famous. The side project also served as a type of respite for Chris and Debbie who were dealing with the increasing pressures of celebrity. Stein recalls, “the TV Party situation was just really great. It was kind of like going to our own club once a week. There was maybe a hundred or so people and we’d gather in this studio. I don’t know who we were actually reaching but it was a lot of fun and enjoyable. The show was a great experiment.”
It was at the show that Chris and Debbie met another pivotal figure, graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy. Freddy was the first person to expose the pair to a new rebellious sound — hip-hop. “He took us up to this thing in the Bronx in ’77.” recalls Chris. “We were the only white people there. It was great seeing this alien scene, which was very similar to what was going downtown with us. All these kids just going nuts and having a great time, it was fantastic.” Three years after that event, and partly inspired by Chic’s “Good Times”, Stein and Harry wrote “Rapture”. Chris still finds himself listening to modern R&B. “I listen to KISS FM and what’s on the radio. There is innocence to it; it’s not as jaded as modern rock. A lot of those guys are coming up with very fresh sounds and melodies that are based purely on experimentation.”
But even with all their commercial and critical success, their demons soon caught up with them. By 1983, the record label dropped the band, they were in serious debt and most of the members were battling serious drug addiction. Chris was hit the hardest as during this time he developed a near fatal autoimmune disease called pemphigus vulgaris. This was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and it took doctors some time to diagnosis Stein with the rare illness. While Debbie continued to work, sporadically releasing songs like “Rush Rush” from the film Scarface, she withdrew from the limelight to help nurse Chris back to health. By the time Stein recovered in the mid ’80s, both he and Debbie noticed how much things had changed. MTV was omnipotent and it was the age of Madonna; Blondie had been eclipsed. While the two are no longer romantically involved, Debbie and Chris remain the closest of friends. During her solo years, he continued to write, record and tour with Harry. And while it is fair to say that her records did not match the success of Blondie, the duo still managed to have fun. “I always had a good time working and the scene was still really great in New York. It didn’t really start going downhill until the ’90s.”
In the late nineties Chris had the mad idea to reform Blondie. While it took some coaxing, the original four members eventually agreed to reunite, releasing 1999’s No Exit. The album picked up right where they left off and it gave them a number one single in the U.K. with the anthemic “Maria”. In 2003 they followed the record up with The Curse Of Blondie. But even with all of their accolades the band is not resting on their laurels. They continue to defy categorization with their forthcoming ninth studio album Panic of Girls. “The record is formed by what the music is and what the songs become. This was kind of eclectic again.” Chris elaborated on his blog Rednight.net, “I think that this record will help people understand that one can write rock lyrics that go further into the realm of poetry and literature, that just don’t make simple statements. Debbie is just writing really great stuff. She is at a high point with that. I am always awed by what she comes up with.”
Producer Jeff Saltzman was at the helm for the making of Panic. Saltzman produced albums for acts like The Killers, The Sounds and Fischerspooner, all musical descendants of the Blondie look, style and sound. Chris also admits to being more driven and enthusiastic this time around. He had a very hands-on approach, experimenting with different sounds by using software like Apple Logic and Garage Band. He also reconnected with writing on the guitar. “This new record is way overdue. It took me awhile to get back in the writing mode. I hope from now on to get something out more regularly. These new tracks reflect what I have been listening to lately.” One of Chris’ favorite groups of the moment is the indie group Beirut. It’s fitting, as they too are not afraid to embrace all types of styles, blending rock, folk music and world music. Beirut frontman Zach Condon even plays on a few of the tracks.
Chris has mixed feelings regarding the music industry today. “It doesn’t have the same kind of cachet. It’s not an outsider thing anymore; it’s so mainstream.” However, there are still a handful of performers out there carrying the anti-establishment torch. “That’s why Lady Gaga is so popular now. Part of her success comes from her freakiness because people are attracted to that. But we are in a weird place today. On one hand, you have to struggle to get in with a record company who is going to give you $100,000 – $200,000 to make a record. At the same time, two kids with a computer can make a record in their basement for $3,000. I don’t know if that’s better or not. There is something to be said about working hard versus just throwing something down made out of loops. You have to weed through the shit but I do hear a lot of great stuff like Fever Ray, which sounds like its all done on the computer. It’s fantastic.”
Something can also be said of a band that continues to challenge themselves and grow at this stage of their career. In 2006, Blondie joined their musical heroes in the pantheon known as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Garbage’s Shirley Manson inducted the band that evening and effortlessly summed up what made them one of the coolest bands in the history of rock and roll. “Blondie put it this way once, ‘dreaming is free’. For many of us, Blondie were the dream.”
(Originally appeared as July 2010 cover story of Origivation magazine)
|Written by Daniel Alonso|
The film Dream of Life marks the full-length feature directorial debut for artist and photographer Steven Sebring. Born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona, he has established himself as a photographer known for a definitive style of merging raw realism with the fantasy of high fashion. He has worked for editorial magazines and shot campaigns for companies such as Ralph Lauren, Lanvin, Maybelline and Coach.
Dream is a portrait of the singer, artist and poet Patti Smith. She is known as the godmother of punk and her diverse career spans over three decades. Smith emerged in the 1970’s, galvanizing the music scene with her unique style of poetic rage, music, and trademark swagger. She narrates the film, which reveals a complicated and charismatic personality.
Sebring’s photographs have been included in the book Patti Smith Complete; Lyrics, Reflections and Notes for the Future and on her albums such as Gung Ho, Land, and the latest album 12 released in 2007. He continues his collaboration with Smith producing the art installation “Objects of Life.” He has also created the book, Patti Smith Dream of Life. The book chronicles the myriad of moments, musical transcripts, and unseen photographs of their unique relationship.
You had met Patti Smith through Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Can you explain what that first meeting was like fifteen years ago?
I went to Detroit. I didn’t know a lot about her and I was hired to photograph her for Spin. I had to learn quickly so I just looked through some Mapplethorpe photographs and stuff like that and I began to remember her. So I went out to Detroit and knocked on the door and met her. I was shocked because she was so angelic and sweet. I spent the whole day with her drinking coffee and I remember her having to remind me that I needed to take some pictures. I was lucky to get a couple rolls of film and that was all I needed.
You have said that you prefer not knowing too much about the person you’re photographing. Why do you like going into the shoots with a clean slate?
Well sometimes, some of the people I photograph, you know so much about them because they have been in every movie in the world and they are so big. You can’t be removed from everybody. But I do like not knowing too much about people. For me, it’s a nice thing because you approach that person incredibly open and you are not judging them. Going into it like that is a great way to come up with your own idea for that person, which I love.
And I assume that helps you create a unique visual identity for the person you are shooting?
Yeah exactly. The one time that I was actually a little bit thrown, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life, was photographing Neil Young. I was photographing him and we were outside in the woods near his ranch. I’ve seen so many pictures of Neil Young. It was the weirdest thing when I was looking through the camera and had him in my lens; I got a little bit freaked out because I was trying to not remember pictures that I have seen of him before. I was really trying to do my own thing but I froze. I literally froze. Then you start hearing his music in your mind. It got really, really strange. I actually told him a little bit about that because I didn’t want to do a picture that I’ve seen before. That’s my whole thing with people is how can you approach it differently? Can you imagine being photographed all the time – the same way, the same interpretation as everybody else? For me that’s so boring.
Was there a particular moment or experience that inspired you to pick up the camera and document Patti?
It was when she invited me to Irving Plaza. It was her first concert back in New York City after taking a long break to raise her children. She invited me to Irving Plaza and I had no idea what her performance would be like. That was early ‘96. It was so mind-boggling how she transforms on stage. It was hard to believe that this was the same girl I was talking to in Detroit. From there, it was pretty immediate that I laid the seed. I was experimenting, having fun with the medium and learning how to do film so it seemed like a natural progression. I said to her, “Has anybody ever filmed you before?” and she immediately laughed at me like a little kid. Then I just kept calling her and calling her and when she went to London to start her European tour she said, “Yeah, come.” That’s when I bought my ticket.
But you didn’t set out to make a feature film?
No I really never thought about it too much. I just kept documenting and filming her because I never felt I had enough personal footage to ever have it make sense. I was also busy shooting and making a living. There was this one time I was so into her I just would travel and hang out but I was neglecting my job and how I made money; I had to go back to that. But then interest began to build because people were reading about it and hearing what I had. Patti and I, one of our times having sushi, thought maybe we should really do something with it. She was turning 60 and it was kind of a nice chapter. I compiled all of it and was able to take a year off to edit. But what was really helpful was that I kept filming during my editing process; I would put her in the corner of her bedroom, sitting on her chair and that helped make all the other footage make sense. It was like the foundation of the film.
As I watched Dream of Life, I noticed you never referenced a time or location. Did you deliberately leave out certain details in order to form a non-linear quality?
I never thought of myself as being a historian or documentarian. I always thought of myself as an artist. I sort of built the film the way it felt like it wanted to be. As soon as I started to assemble the footage in a chronological order, it looked stupid. It looked like something else to me and I didn’t want it to be like that. I wasn’t setting out to do something in the norm and I know some people were expecting that. I know when people go to the movie theatre, when they see Dream of Life, they will be expecting one thing. Maybe a couple of people talking about her and stuff but I didn’t do that. As soon as I started trying to make a normal documentary, it just wanted to be more and more diverse. I did an original edit years ago, which helped a lot, so I could understand what was going on. I referred to that once and awhile.
It felt as if you made your own sub genre by fusing elements of a music documentary and art house film. . .
A lot of these omissions were due to legal hassles or logistical problems but it actually intensifies that dream-like feeling, which I find, make the film really great.
Thank you very much. For me, it was a study at the same time. The less stuff I had to work with the better I got and the more creative I got. I would love to approach another project the same way because I think that your film is better for it. You see films now with these huge budgets that it gets sort of mainstream at the end of the day. I think that having less is always more. I truly believe that.
What kind of influences did you bring to the movie as many of the shots came across as a fashion spread in motion?
A lot of my editorial work has drawn upon film as inspiration and the old school directors have always influenced me. I always wanted to make sure Patti was the most incredible. It was sort of like I was shooting fashion on Patti. I always made sure I had the right angle and how the light looked on her. That really helped me a lot when I was making the film because instead of shooting an editorial still, I’m taking a lot of stills at once and it keeps going twenty-four frames per second. I really got excited about that when I first started doing it. I thought it was really cool.
You mentioned trying to capture Patti at her most incredible and she herself has been quoted as saying she felt very relaxed around you and your camera because you respected her boundaries and never sought out to capture a “bad” moment. As the filming went on and the years passed, did you find that were was something specific you were capturing?
We had such a rapport that I never witnessed anything awful when I was filming her. Every time I filmed her, I felt it was like this incredible spiritual connection that we had. We’d go and visit the gravesite of William Blake or (Percy Bysshe) Shelley and there was always something so magical about it. Even to this day, when I put a camera on her, it is always magical. I know how to photograph her. When I see photographers photograph her now, they don’t get it. It’s the same thing when I was filming her all these years. . .there were times I was financially broke and I would still go and film her and think to myself that I wasn’t get anything new. But I was always shocked, magically shocked, that I would get something so gorgeous from her, something so new and she always blew my mind. I mean that for me was quite incredible.
I think that’s the mark of a true artist too.
Oh she’s a great artist. That’s why I did this broadcast with PBS and with POV because I don’t think this country realizes what a national treasure they have on their hands. She is a great artist; she’s a great poet; she’s a great performer and she’s a great humanitarian. That’s why I wanted to do this thing with Public Broadcasting because I knew that this movie would hit most people’s TV. Not a lot of people I realized, after doing interviews with people in Middle America, nobody had cable. And they only think of Patti Smith as this rebel, punk rock singer who did “Because The Night” and that’s it. They are always so shocked when they see the film because they had no idea. I wanted to make sure people saw everything that I knew about her. I didn’t want it to be too music driven.
A lot of the film’s more reflective moments feature Patti in her self-contained corner, recounting the stories behind some of her personal possessions. Is this where the idea for the “Objects of Life” installation came from?
I kept my movie camera in her bedroom for months and it was one of those things where when we had a moment, I would turn on the camera and she would talk about a couple things. I never knew what she was going to show me. I loved the stories and when I was looking at the dailies and looking at the stories, what was really cool about it was that I could just pick up the stuff and look at them closely. I called them artifacts. I’m looking at Robert’s (Mapplethorpe) urn or I’m looking at her childhood dress and seeing the stitches; I said to Patti I should photograph these things and document them. She thought that was amazing because I was doing what I normally do, taking pictures. But I always felt when I blew them up big that they had their own stories to tell. You wouldn’t even need to see the movie and you can look at her childhood dress on the wall and say, “Wow, look how cool it is.” What was really great about it was that you are seeing Patti in the movie talking about this dress and then you can go experience this dress in a gallery in a different way. I always thought that was really an interesting sensation. It was another sensation and that is why I did “Objects of Life.” It toured around the world and now it is finally in New York. The New York version at the Robert Miller Gallery is really what I wanted it to be.
I viewed the exhibit before watching the film and your photographs, perhaps due to their scale or style, are very haunting. Without knowing Patti’s history or background at that point, I thought your work and the subject matter stood on its own.
That’s what I wanted to achieve. What was really interesting is when people then see the movie or they’ve seen the movie and say, “Oh my God, there’s that that ray-gun from the war protest scene.” I find that to be an interesting thing. I always thought it stood alone. It inspired me to do more of that type of thing with other people and other artists. It seemed interesting to see these pieces in a different light. They are her personal possessions and you are witnessing it really crisp and clear.
Patti was quoted as saying “the film really says so much about Steven as a human being” but I am curious as to what you think the film says about her?
About how incredibly interesting and diverse and what a great artist she is. Some people say to me, “I’ve heard if you are not a Patti Smith fan that you are not going to understand this film” and I totally disagree with that. I was never a fan of hers but making this movie was my learning process. When I watch the movie, I see this really incredible, diverse woman who does all these different things. She’s incredibly spiritual and totally inspiring which made me a fan. That’s how I look at this film. If you keep an open heart when watching the film, you may end up wanting to research her a little bit more and know more about her poetry or maybe you’ll be inspired to look up Arthur Rimbaud or William Blake? It’s an insight to this woman and what inspires her but it inspires the viewer too.
And to go back to Patti’s quote, what do you think the film says about you both as an artist and a human being?
When I see it, it is truly from my heart. Visually, it’s very much me. It’s been a great journey and I feel it’s going to keep going. Patti and I are constantly thinking of different projects and working on different things. I always laugh at her when she says “It’s Steven’s movie” and I’m like, “Patti, it’s your movie too! You’re the star!” She’s very modest and I always told her “You know what Patti, after this movie comes out, I guarantee you will be in film.”
Are you working on another film?
I do have some film projects on the horizon. They are more fictional films though. During our big opening at the Robert Miller, Albert Maysles approached me and said he wanted to collaborate with me. Can you imagine me and Albert Maysles making a movie?
Maybe a Grey Gardens sequel starring Patti?
Wouldn’t that be funny?
|Written by Daniel Alonso|
You’ve been quoted as saying that the album covers of your youth were one of the things that helped formed your artistic eye. What was it about album art – especially the cover for Sideshow’s Lip Read Confusion – that inspired you?
In high school I was buying a lot of albums. Smaller record labels put out a lot of these albums and they usually had unique packaging. For example, some of the packaging was letterpressed. Often times, it was as basic as using uncoated paper instead of glossy paper (which seemed to be the norm at the time) that made the artwork special. This kind of work appealed to me a lot because there just seemed to be an extra level of thought and care put into it. Later when I was in school for design, I learned about Jeff Kleinsmith’s work through certain design magazines and it was then that I realized he had designed some of my favorite covers.
Of all mediums, what attracted you to silk-screening?
A friend of mine was doing a lot of screen printing while I was attending design school. A lot of what appealed to me was the tactile quality of it and it was always exciting for me to see the posters up around town so quickly after they were produced. The process of designing something, then screen printing the design and having a stack of posters to promote the shows with was really exciting and immediate.
How influential was skate culture and graphics to you growing up?
I grew up skateboarding and became introduced to art and design through skateboard graphics, t-shirts, and record covers. Later I realized how much that informed how I enjoy working with a limited color palette and a central graphic for the most part.
Before forming the Small Stakes, you worked various jobs including a stint at Noise 13 (San Francisco based design firm). While you were there, you became involved designing posters for shows at a venue called the Ramp. Who were some of the bands/musicians you designed for during that time?
Friends of mine booked all the shows at The Ramp and they asked me to make a poster for each show. This was how I got started making posters. The Ramp would usually have one show a month. Some bands that played at The Ramp were Aspects of Physics, Damien Jurado, Deerhoof, and Why? On average there was one touring band with a couple of local bands supporting.
Did your relationships grow with those bands as you moved forward in your career?
One band and record label that I continued to do work for beyond The Ramp was Castanets on Asthmatic Kitty Records and also Why?
We are living in a world where one can read classic novels on a Kindle and listen to music without ever holding an album in their hands. As the digital music revolution marches on, do you find that poster art is becoming more significant?
The music and artwork or design definitely goes hand in hand in my mind. With less people owning albums there is something missing and posters help to fill that void.
Your designs are a combination of intellect, minimalist style and wit. When you started out designing, was that a conscious decision to create imagery that didn’t necessarily fit into one’s stereotype of what rock and roll should look like?
Viewers would be hard pressed to find any images of semi-clad girls, devils or a barrage of text in your work. It wasn’t so much of a conscious decision. I was making work that I was drawn to. I really credit Jeff Kleinsmith and Aesthetic Apparatus and their approach to poster design. Their work influenced me very much early on and made me really excited to design posters. I wanted to make work that seemed to fit the bands I got a chance to make posters for.
A follow up to that question, in the L.A. Times you were quoted as describing your style as “very non rock n’ roll”. I found that statement somewhat ironic considering the majority of your work focuses on rock music. Can you elaborate on what that means?
A lot of the bands I make posters for I consider to be very unique; when I make a poster I want to get the feel of the band down on paper. I view it as a collaboration between the band and myself.
Your ideas are executed in a way that they never read as literal. For example, you designed a poster featuring a vertigo pattern of butterflies for the band Blonde Redhead and designed a heart comprised of dismembered fly wings against a bold red background for a Nada Surf print. Do these concepts stem from specific songs or music references?
I will often reference songs or album titles to get my start on a poster design, but sometimes it can be more a general feel or an image that might evoke the bands sound. For instance the butterflies swirling on the Blonde Redhead poster refers to the sound of Blonde Redhead, which especially on the newer albums had a definite swirly sound and hum throughout the guitar work. It may be kind of funny to say, but to me the poster makes that sound.
I often don’t receive a lot of feedback or word back about particular designs, but occasionally there will be some guidance. One example would be a poster I did for Josh Ritter that has an image of Idaho combined with piano keys to make the overall image of a grand piano. Josh had requested a design that had something to do with Idaho. This made me nervous at first, but I’m happy that he made the request because it sent me off in a certain direction right away.
Along with poster work, you’ve also worked with different companies like Patagonia on designing garments. Have you ever considered veering away from poster design and working in other arenas?
I still really enjoy making posters and want to continue to do so. That being said, I am always interested in working on new types of projects. I’ve also been thinking of doing some more self initiated type projects in the near future.
You have exhibited your work at Flatstock (a series of exhibitions featuring the work of many working artists, sponsored by the American Poster Institute). What does it mean to you to show your work amongst your fellow artists as well as meeting the consumers and fans in person?
I really look forward to attending Flatstocks each year. I’ve met some of my closest friends at these exhibits and I always look forward to seeing them and their work in person. I remember being really nervous and intimidated when I first attended Flatstock because I was in a room with many of my favorite designers and work that I admired.
Yes, definitely. It’s very welcoming and always inspiring to see everyone’s work.
There is definitely a community of designers working here in Oakland. Most of us work from home, which can be difficult at times as we tend to get stuck in our own worlds a bit. I have been definitely making it a goal to getting out a bit more and meet with other designers and friends so we all don’t feel so isolated. There is a lot the area has to offer and I definitely want to take advantage of those things more.
I’m most excited about a book Chronicle is publishing about my posters that will be coming out in March.
For more information please visit www.thesmallstakes.com
Daniel Alonso reports, “I had the opportunity to chat with the legendary music photographer in his apartment/studio overlooking the West Side Highway to discuss his career, famous friends like John Lennon and how Flickr is slowly destroying the art of photography.”
Daniel Alonso: As I was doing my research, I found you got your first camera, a Kodak Brownie Hawk Eye, at the age of eight. What are you first memories of photography?
Bob Gruen: Well, my mom’s hobby was photography. She used to develop and print her own pictures, so I got into it kind of early on. When I was eleven I took pictures of the other kids at summer camp. I sent my pictures home to my mom and she developed them for me and sent them back. That’s when I first started selling pictures, back to the campers.
What was it that initially drew you in? Was it the business aspect?
I just enjoyed moving around. When I see a show I don’t like sitting in my seat.
I like to take pictures and tell people about the show. I don’t know, it was a natural feeling, like when I am at a show I have the urge to take pictures. It was like storytelling.
As you then pursued photography, was there a moment when you knew what you were doing was more than just a hobby?
I never knew that. I didn’t really picture my life. Nowadays, people make career decisions early on but you have to remember, I was more of the generation who “tuned in, turned on and dropped out.”
And plus back then you couldn’t go to school to be a “rock” photographer?
Absolutely not. You couldn’t go to school to be a rock anything. Rock and roll was not accepted as a subject. It is still barely a subject.
Do you remember who your first music-related subject was?
My friends formed a band called the Justice League and that was the first group that I photographed. Over the next couple years, they went through different drummers and names and they ended up being called The Glitter House, this was about 1969 or so. I had been photographing them over the years so when they made an album as The Glitter House, the record company used my pictures for publicity. Since they liked them, they started to hire me for other jobs. One thing led to another and I started meeting more people. It was around 1970 that I started working in the business.
Shortly thereafter you became chief photographer for Rock Scene magazine. Can you explain what that was that like?
Rock Scene gave us access to a lot of things although it was actually kind of like a hobby, it wasn’t an ongoing business; we didn’t have an office that we ever went to. It only came out three or four times a year so it was basically seasonal. I would get all the pictures I had taken over the last few months and send them up to Richard Robinson and Lenny Kaye; they would write captions and put the magazine together. Richard’s wife Lisa basically organized all the things that we did with major groups. The thing about Rock Scene was that there were a lot of little groups that sent in pictures, groups that were unsigned. This was much more difficult in the ‘70s to make your own records but some groups did or at least they made their own gigs and publicity and they sent in pictures and Rock Scene would print groups of pictures of unknown bands.
It sounds like it was more of a D.I.Y. publication than music magazine?
It was very much like a glorified fanzine. We had very little advertising because we had no sales staff. Since none of us were getting paid we weren’t doing it to make money. But because of Lisa’s connections and the rest of us, we did major bands — Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Kiss and Alice Cooper.
So it was really through Lisa’s connections that got you access to the superstars of the day?
Lisa Robinson was a columnist for the New York Post and her column was syndicated in 175 newspapers around the world, including NME in England. She was a very powerful, and still is a very powerful person in the music business who could connect with just about anybody and did on a regular basis. We saw all the bands; saw all the parties and got a lot of private interviews.
How did shooting established bands in those days differ from shooting up and coming acts?
Well back then there was in some ways more access as people didn’t have as much legal restrictions on taking pictures of bands. There weren’t nearly as many outlets — magazines or newspapers — that were interested in rock and roll so bands were more open in working with someone to get publicity. Now a band can just put themselves on MySpace or Facebook and people around the world can see them. Back then there was no way of doing that at all. It was only a few magazines that even carried rock and roll. Things like Life magazine or Look or even The New York Times, they didn’t cover rock. If the Rolling Stones played New York, it wasn’t reviewed in The New York Times. It was rock and roll and therefore didn’t matter. Nowadays, you’ll see that The New York Times will review a show at [the venue] Terminal 5 or a crummy club out in Brooklyn because the music is more a part of the culture now. Back then it was still considered a teenage fad that would pass away.
With regards to the downtown New York scene, you said that you didn’t feel you were necessarily documenting the people because you were one of those people.
What did submersing yourself in that lifestyle do you for you?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. Like I say, “tune in, turn on and drop out.” You know, I didn’t decide I was going to become a rock and roll photographer. There was no such word, “rock and roll photographer”. It wasn’t a job description and in fact for many years you didn’t make much money. I don’t know why anyone would make that job description if they had the opportunity. [laughs.] These kind of things, looking back, it wasn’t really a choice. I couldn’t work 9am – 5pm because I couldn’t get up in the morning. I enjoyed hanging out all night with bands. I was barely getting by from check to check by taking pictures of them but I kept doing it. People now seem to look more carefully, think about the future and make decisions based on where they want to be and what they want to do. Back then we had no future and we accepted it lustfully. It was be here and now. The world was going to hell and nobody thought they could own a house or have insurance or a nice car. I was pretty lucky because I had a used car but only because I couldn’t afford any other kind of transportation. [laughs.]
One thing that differs now in the digital age is that you almost need little skill or education to shoot live bands as you have the luxury to stop, look at your image, edit in camera, etc. How were you able to capture live acts so successfully in the days of film?
It’s funny, somebody asked me the other day if there were more photographers now that everybody has a camera in their pocket and I said there are a lot more people taking pictures now but not really more photographers. There is more to getting a good photograph than just holding up a camera and pushing the button. There are things like proportion in a photograph, there is timing, there is cropping, etc. It is not just clicking anything; it’s getting the right moment. But yeah, photography used to be a much more nerdy kind of thing because you had to know how to operate the machinery of a camera. You had to know how to focus, what f/stops were and how to set them, how the speed matters and changes different pictures. Now all that is done automatically so it is much more open to more people taking photos. But it’s a question of if they are thinking of what the photo is going to look like and making conscious decisions or just snapping just to say, “I was there.” Just because someone uploads 127 pictures up on Flickr doesn’t mean that any of them are good. I think that is really a problem with people posting everything to Flickr and other sites, people don’t edit. My advice is to take a lot of pictures. If you take a lot of pictures, you get a couple of good ones and people think you’re very good. But if you show it all, people are going to see too many bad ones. I mean, if I shot a roll of pictures, if one or two of the pictures were good, then that was a good roll. I didn’t like to show my contact sheets. I don’t want people to see thirty-three bad pictures. I rather just show two good ones that people would like. The trouble with putting everything up these days is that it’s overkill. Why do you need 127 pictures of the exact same thing when 125 of them are bad? Why don’t you just post two good pictures?
When you were given assignments to shoot bands, did you go into it with a specific concept in mind or did you prefer a more spontaneous style of shooting?
I usually didn’t think of an idea beforehand. Sometimes an art director would give me an assignment and say this is what we want it to look like. Usually, I just show up and do the best I can in the circumstances with whomever I’m working with. It was more of collaboration with the group. I like to know what they like to look like. My pictures tend to look natural because I don’t pose the people. I really let them do what they normally do and then I just try to capture them looking good doing it.
I think that one thing that set you apart from many other photographers was that you created a relaxed atmosphere with the people you were working with. That comfort level with your subjects evolved into some long lasting friendships. Did you know that would get you a better photo by creating a laidback environment?
Knowing your subjects helps you get better pictures because you spend a lot more time with them. You can be around when there is good lighting and good moments happening. But I don’t know if the pictures are necessarily better just from hanging out. I think that part of what I did is that I was good at taking pictures to begin with. I just had a natural understanding of what a picture should look like with proportions and knowing what looks good and what doesn’t.
Apart from making them feel comfortable though, I get the sense the famous people you were shooting knew you weren’t going to take advantage of them?
Yes, they knew I wasn’t going to embarrass them. I was in it for the long run. I liked to be liked. If I take somebody’s picture, I want to be able to come back and do it again. I don’t want to just get a quick shot one night to embarrass somebody. I always saw these musicians, even famous ones, as people. I had an agent once who used see them as if they were some kind of different species. To him, it didn’t matter if you embarrassed them, especially if you were making a couple dollars off of it. To me, that’s a horrible way to make a living by embarrassing people. I always related to it personally. I myself wouldn’t want to be embarrassed. I would think of what it would mean to see yourself in an awkward situation or to lose your marriage because someone snapped a shot of you with a girl you happened to be talking to that was misinterpreted.
Still, was there anyone you worked with that you were in awe of?
Sure, there were still some people you were kind of starstruck by. I got to be friends with John Lennon but every time I was with him, I always knew I was in the presence of John Lennon and that was pretty fucking special. He was a unique and amazing person and I always felt very lucky I was able to know him. A couple of other people I knew were like that too. At the same time I never forgot John was a normal human being and had normal feelings so we could get along on that level. It’s not like you completely forget that these people are famous and with good reason.
A lot of people in my generation are guilty of looking back at New York City as this mystifying place that encouraged radical artistic expression, decades before mass gentrification. What was it do you think that the city had, or didn’t have, that made it the birthplace for such movements like the ones you documented?
I think it still is an inviting place. I recently met a college student who came to New York and she just can’t get enough and a lot of other people feel the same way. That is why New York is full of tourists. It’s a special place, a cool place, still is. We don’t have CBGB’s but at the time, we didn’t know it was CBGB’s. It was just some dump downtown. It wasn’t a world destination. We got a hundred dumps out in Brooklyn now where you can go out and have fun every night. There was a time in the 70’s I suppose when it was really special, kind of like Paris in the 20’s, which was a place and time I always wanted to go to. Now people wish they could have been in New York in the 70’s. But you can only be where you are. I never got to Paris in the 20’s but managed to have fun anyway. It is just kind of sad to me when people come up to me, and they do all the time and say, “I was born too late.” Well, what the fuck are you doing with yourself? Why don’t you go out and have fun? In the 70’s we weren’t wishing we were around in the 50’s. Kerouac, Ginsberg . . . we weren’t wishing we were one of them. It would have been nice to see what was going on but you know in the 70’s, it wasn’t like everybody knew that it was a special time. Mostly, people were standing around going “what are you doing tonight?” “I don’t know, what are you doing tonight?” “Well I heard Debbie (Harry) is playing at Max’s.” “Yeah, let’s go over there.” It was no big deal, you know? Most of the people standing around at Max’s (Kansas City) were bored shitless. Why do you think they were taking drugs and drinking so much? They weren’t happy, they weren’t successful and weren’t feeling good. Is that a special time to look back at and wish you were there? I don’t think so. [laughs.] It’s just a different world now. People think they can stay home and communicate on Facebook and have loads of friends that they don’t even know. Some guy came up to me in the lobby last night and said [sarcastic tone.] “I’m your friend on Facebook” and I’m looking at him and thinking I don’t even know you. That’s not a friend, just because you send some sentences back and forth. Meeting and touching is more important than having online friends. You have to get out of your house. Go meet people and be somewhere. You can’t go to CBGB’s online. Well, actually now a days that’s the only way to go. [laughs.] But you can’t go to a club online and meet somebody online. It’s a different kind of world. People are afraid to go out. People think they are going to run into a bombing or a disease or something. They rather just stay home and be safe; but nobody is ever safe anyway. It’s a different world that people have to negotiate and travel in. It is not for me to figure out how to work this modern world. It’s also not for me to complain about. Things change and I expect things to change. I’m just delighted to be alive. Most of my friends didn’t live to see this change.
You are vocal about not being too nostalgic and looking ahead to the future. What does it mean for you to follow current music and photograph more modern acts like Green Day for example?
Well I’m not dead. [laughs.] I have to do something everyday that amuses and entertains me. Sitting around listening to old Clash records doesn’t do it. I like to listen to a Clash record on the way to see Green Day, that’s a little more interesting. And Green Day is a fantastic band and they are alive and they are in touch with the moment and I like that. I always liked going out and doing things. I didn’t set out to create a chronicle. I set out to have a life; the chronicle came with it. I’ll go out and see two or three groups a night now. There are still a lot of things to see out there but I don’t seek out new bands. I mostly see my friends or things I am invited to.
Your work has been exhibited all around the world – from Brazil to Japan. Music fans appear to be more passionate about American rock and roll then their counterparts here in the States. Do you find your international fans respond differently to your work?
Well I was lucky I made a point of developing international contacts. For one thing, magazines paid so little for photos so I needed several outlets to pay my expenses. In Japan certainly they appreciate photography as an art more and artists in general are appreciated a lot more as if an artists are people who have talent. In America, artists are generally considered dropouts who don’t want to do any other real job. In other countries, like Japan and France, artists are respected. I like being in those places but I am getting a lot of respect in America now. It seems every time I go out now, someone comes out of the crowd to shake my hand and thank me for what I have done. That is something I never expected. Photographers were never really recognized, it’s only recently that people are making a point how much photos influenced what was going on. Photography brought rock and roll to people and it was how they received it, learned and understood it. It wasn’t just the music. Sure, you heard the music on the radio but people have a natural curiously of who’s doing it and what they look like. The photographs convey the attitude of rock and roll. It wasn’t just the beat; half of rock and roll was the image. It was an attitude of confidence and freedom that comes across in the pictures.
Within the last couple years, you had your “Rockers” exhibition, the photo-collage installation at MOMA and most recently the “Who Shot Rock and Roll” show currently at the Brooklyn Museum. Looking back at your life and career, how does that make you feel?
Vindicated; I wasn’t wrong. After all these years I am finally getting recognized. Back in the day, you know, your family thinks your wasting your life and you pretty much agree. Most of my mom’s life she thought I was a failure because being recognized in the world of rock and roll didn’t matter. There were many times I doubted what I was doing and thought I should drive a cab or be a short order cook. Finally, major museums of the world recognize your work. Looking back at history, that’s the way it was for a lot of artists who created something new. When Andy Warhol first put out his Brillo boxes and silver balloons, he was considered a clown. It was absolute not art whatsoever. Now he’s considered the master and a genius and a person who basically invented the future. To be vindicated after a lifetime of being on the outside . . . it feels great.
“Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present”
On view through January 31, 2010 at the Brooklyn Museum
(Interview originally appeared on Juxtapoz Magazine online, December 10, 2009)