An Interview with Dinos Chapman

John Doran talks to the artist about his new album and why artists usually make terrible musicians.

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18 April 2013, 7:15am


Dinos Chapman by Jake Walter

Adam Richardson, formerly of West Country doom masters Ramesses and Lords Of Putrefaction, is one of UK metal’s great raconteurs. He tells an amazing story about how he once went into a cave with a blotter sheet of acid and a six-string, only to emerge a few days later with no LSD left but a better guitar player and able to speak some conversational Spanish.

I interviewed him in 2010 for Metal Hammer magazine about how photographs of Fucking Hell – the infamous giant sculpture of thousands of eternally damned Nazis by the artists Jake And Dinos Chapman – came to grace the sleeve for the trio’s Take The Curse album.  

He told me about the almost psychedelic effect their artwork had on him: “The first time I saw Fucking Hell was just so bizarre… experiencing something that strong when you're with other people. You could easily just stand there in the one spot because [the sculpture] is so detailed you could just get lost in it for hours. Days, even. When I first saw the art, I was surrounded by people saying 'Fucking Hell.' Their mouths were hanging open. It was really funny hearing this mantra going on while people were looking at the most harrowing things possible to the imagination. I said it myself because it reminded me of an Autopsy album cover.”

Determined to get to meet the artists, Richardson made them an occult artefact. A huge black rubber canvas with an upside down cross painted in black on it was wrapped round the band’s back catalogue, lashed up, sealed with wax and nailed shut into a 100-year-old wooden box, cast with spells and sent off to them.

The next thing he knew, he was round their studios by invitation being told to take as many photographs of Fucking Hell as he wanted to use as the album art.

When asked if the brothers liked his music, he had this to say: “It’s difficult for me to talk about but yeah, I think they do. When I first gave them Take The Curse they put it on in their stereo at what can only be described as a painful volume – even for me. I thought, ‘Surely they are not going to listen to the whole thing at this eardrum bursting volume.’ And sure enough, an hour later, they finished listening to it. Nothing was on the stereo before and nothing went on after it. And then they just asked me loads of questions about how it was recorded… Normally I’d have to be off my nut to listen to music that loud.”

Dinos Chapman breaks into a huge grin when I mention the Ramesses front man: “Isn’t Adam like Jesus? He’s such a nice guy. He’s totally not what you’d expect from such an extreme band. We wanted to get involved with them again to do this project at [giant London department store] Selfridges. They were re-launching the shop a few years ago so we phoned up Adam and said, ‘Do you want to play a gig in Selfridges’ Food Hall?’ Jake was going to play guitar with them. I couldn’t work out how my music was going to fit in with what they were doing so I was just going to dance like Bez. We wanted to see if we could fill one end of the hall with loads of amplifiers and see if that would smash all the crystal and glass in the room with noise. It got quite far down the line until someone pulled the plug. We couldn’t believe it took them so long to realise it was such a bad idea, from their point of view.”

Now this is the point where anyone with any sense should be crying accusations of dilettantism. Even I feel like saying: “Ramesses? So what? That doesn’t give you a free pass…” But as much as I usually hate the idea of synergy and “dabbling” in unfamiliar fields, let’s have a quick look at the Chapman Brothers’ musical credentials. In 2009 they made the video for PJ Harvey and John Parish’s "Black Hearted Love". (The brothers have been a direct influence on Polly Harvey’s lyric writing, or at the very least she shares their obsession with Goya’s Disasters Of War sketch A Heroic Feat! With Dead Men!; as heard in her 2011 song "The Words That Maketh Murder": “I’ve seen and done things that I want to forget / I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat / Blown and shot out beyond belief / Arms and legs were in the trees.”) They collaborated with art-savvy post punks Wire and DJ Kirsten Reynolds for an AV performance at the Barbican in 2003. They curated one of the best All Tomorrow’s Parties events ever – the 2004 Nightmare Before Christmas weekend, which featured Throbbing Gristle, LFO, Aphex Twin, Liars, The Fall, Wolf Eyes, Rob Booth and SunnO))).

That should do for starters. Do you want some sort of comparison? Okay: Damien Hirst directed the "Country House" video for Blur.

When I meet Dinos Chapman, in the nice, open-plan offices of the Vinyl Factory who have put his Luftbobler album out, he’s literally just found out that he’s lost ten years’ worth of musical work. All of the stems – each component of the multi-tracks – of his electronic music recorded over the last decade are gone. Of course, he made no backups or hard copies…

However Dinos, a tall, handsome but extremely tired looking man in reassuringly expensive but unflashy clothes and jewellery, doesn’t really look like he cares.  

“Oh well!” he grins.

One gets the impression that this was probably also his response when he heard about the Saatchi warehouse fire in East London, 2004 which destroyed their other, earlier, huge Nazi figurine diorama, Hell. And perhaps if I were to give free reign to my imagination I could even picture him laughing at the idea of the blaze, thousands and thousands of Nazi skeletons and demons melting into liquid lead and pouring across the landscape like a toy town Dresden.

We head down a flight of stairs into a massive (and presumably very expensive) basement under Phonica Records in Soho. The space is being prepared for the album launch which will be kicking off in a few hours. Four large projection screens line the walls showing short films made by the artist using a digital camera and default MacBook film editing technology. One shows a rich lysergic sunset over Hastings – his home town – as seen from the promenade.

“Look at that,” he says absent-mindedly. “It’s apocalyptic. Like the inferno.”

He looks at it quizzically for a few more moments and shouts to an engineer: “This is upside down. Do you think someone could put it the right way up before tonight?”

True enough, leaden, undulating waves of sky hang implacably over a bonfire coloured sea full of little fluffy clouds.  

He grins like a schoolboy: “It’s a little bit naughty. It’s filmed from where Hastings Pier burned down.”

He confesses that the films were incredibly easy to make and serve as an eye boggling and ear dulling strategy: “They were an attempt to divert people’s attention from listening to the music too hard. I like the fact that they’re incredibly benign films. There are a couple of car journeys with the camera hanging out of the window. There’s one of my kids dancing and jumping around in the waves. There’s one of bunny rabbits. I just love the idea that by the simplest means possible you can just fuck it all up. It’s all done on iMovie. It’s just like that, sliders all to one side, slow it down and it works. You can do this with any video and set it to music and it’ll work. I think your brain just puts two wires together. No matter how far apart [the music and the images] are, they fit.”

And all of a sudden you’ve got an entire generation claiming that Dark Side Of The Moon and The Wizard Of Oz fit together, I say to him.  

“I’m sure they do,” he says, looking at another of the screens. Giant techno pets – robotic children’s rabbits – leap past the camera as if clinging to the ceiling.

“Sean!” he shouts to the man from the Vinyl Factory. “This film’s upside down as well! Is everything going to be ready for tonight?”

Nothing is quite as you expect with Dinos Chapman. Everything is inverted.


Dinos Chapman – "So it goes"

No matter how deeply engaged the artist is with music, Luftbobler has divided opinion. Dinos (Konstantinos Chapman, born 1962) doesn’t help matters, either. Naming his album after the Norwegian word for the bubbles in an Aero bar and gleefully relishing in his primitavist, messy approach (something he calls “schamplige”), he winks with a toothy, expensive grin at all the techno producers and DJs toiling away in obscurity with the certain knowledge that they will never be interviewed by the Guardian or Wallpaper* (or indeed VICE).

Personally, I think it’s great music though; it’s essentially the electronic side of his Nightmare Before Christmas selection condensed into one album with clear links to Autechre and TG as well as nods to Aphex Twin and LFO. True, there’s a touch of Radiohead’s brittle and glitchy angst-step to it, but then you can’t have everything. The music was created on a set up that’s comfortably above minimum entry-level but he’s also obviously not a gear head or interested in the idea of genre authenticity or pure analogue sounds or effects.

Not that you can tell from listening to it, but some of the tracks contain samples from typically perverse sources including Kylie Minogue talking about plastic surgery and audio pornography for the blind. He lists the sources: "On one of the tracks it's my children who are sampled. Then on 'Pizza Man' the source is a website called Porn For The Blind, where this guy watches a porn film and just describes what's going on in such a monotone. I can't imagine a blind person getting any gratification from it. I can't work out whether it's a joke or not. Stuff that didn’t make the final cut included a séance and David Lynch. But it’s the voices themselves that I’m interested in, not what they’re actually saying."

His use of the word “schamplige” is revelatory: “I’m slightly obsessed with weird German words. I like the fact that they’re like the linguistic equivalent of a sawn off shot gun. It means so many different things. I took the word to mean sloppy or unfinished work. I made some sculptures before and I called them Minderwertigkinder after trying to find a German translation for “shoddily made children”. Of course there’s German word for it. I was like, ‘Great!’ But then I found another one and then another one and of course there are about 15 different words for shoddy humans and this relates back the Nazis. I think the Poles were referred to as Minderwertigmensch. I thought I’d apply the same to the music. Someone told me it means slutty as well…”

I mention how annoyed some techno people are at the coverage he’s receiving and if he, in turn, is annoyed because he’s been working on this project for a decade and they’re painting him as some arriviste wanker. He’s disappointingly diplomatic: “I’ve always been interested in electronic music for as long as I’ve known it’s existed and I’ve had many failed attempts to get involved in it. Basically, I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do and all my questions to people who were making electronic music were answered in the most obscure way possible. Basically no one wanted to help me, so I had to find my own way through. I started by using the most basic Fisher Price sequencer before thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I can do better than that.’ And by the time you get really into it you realise you need to get the proper equipment to produce it right. I use Maschine – lots of Native Instrument software and I’ve got a little KORG keyboard. Basically I don’t want a spaceship. I like the idea I can put it all in a box and take it wherever I want to go. One of the most interesting things about electronic music is that I don’t need very much. It’s a universe inside a very small box but there’s plenty in that box to mess around with.”

I tell him that I like the album but I shouldn’t do really – that I have real misgivings about musicians making art. It’d be a lie to say that every musician is a bad artist but it’s not far off a statistical 100 percent. Even David Bowie is a bad artist, that’s how bad the situation is. He retorts that Bowie is also a bad musician but apologises almost immediately saying that he doesn’t mean it. So much for the enfant terrible that I’d been led to expect by so many poorly researched, thin-skinned newspaper profiles…

I ask him to approach it from the opposite direction and to tell me truthfully if artists are usually bad musicians or producers of music. He’s blunter when on home ground: “Yes, they are. People become artists because they have great big over inflated egos and they crave attention. And they shouldn’t be given it most of the time. But when they do get attention they suddenly start believing that they are good in any given field. Artists who make cakes, for example, believe they are the best cake makers there are. They think they dress amazingly. But yeah, there is a long history of artists making music that deserves to be flushed. Which is why I’m surprised that anyone’s giving me attention.”

I restate my mistrust of synergy, saying that if an idea’s good it should be expressed in one medium not across numerous ones. This is obviously not something he believes, given that this is a multi-media project.

He explains: “I think ideas are ideas and they express themselves in whatever you do. I mean think about what Jake and I do: we pretty much only have one idea. It infects everything we do. Everything we do is just another manifestation of that idea. It’s a big idea – it’s not just a nugget – it’s this great big, messy, uncontrollable, angry thing that inhabits our work. Whatever we do is always a representation of this idea no matter what we try and do. Even if we tried not to represent that idea, we still would. The thing with the music is that it’s the same: it’s not different, it’s just a different way of doing it.”

If there’s a debt to be paid to anyone by Dinos, it’s to Autechre. (He knows Rob from the group and admits freely that he would love to sit in on one of their recording sessions to see what their process is like: “I’m only interested in the process, not the end result.”) No bad thing. More people, not less, should be influenced by them. There’s something I really like about the way some of Autechre’s material is recorded and this is because they come from an electro / hip-hop / hardcore background so they scratch in samples, set tapes running in real time, trigger samples by hand so it’s not all coming in quantised, rigid by sequencer. And I get a sense of organised chaos in the artist’s music as well. On "So It Goes" there are a lot of satisfying clanks and groans and bursts of noise. I ask him where these bits of organic sound come from.

He says: “I played [Luftbobler] to my sister and she said, ‘This is so you.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘It’s like a fairytale gone wrong. It’s like Hansel And Gretel, you’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs behind you but something’s come along and eaten them and you can’t find your way home.’ I think the noise you’re talking about is someone talking but it’s been affected so many times that over time it’s become this rumbling, thundery noise. After a while you stop knowing where they come from, they just become these things that you’ve tried. It just makes me laugh. It’s so sloppy. I don’t know where I’m going half the time. It’s like a great big bucket of things that have been snipped off and fiddled with.

"You know when you’re a kid you have a toy box and your favourite ones are the broken ones right at the bottom so you have to tip the whole thing out just to get that thing that’s in the corner? It’s like that. It’s wilfully disorganised. I didn’t think any of this stuff would turn out like this.”

He adds: “When my sister, my brother and I were young, when we were growing up in Hastings in the mid-70s, we were all pretty much forced to play the electric guitar. We’d troop down there and pretend that we’d been practicing all week but of course we hadn’t. Jake continued playing guitar, he’s very good. My sister carried on playing classical guitar and was very good but then packed it in. I stopped because I realised that I was too shy to play guitar in front of anyone. Guitar is a performative instrument. So then I found this thing, the computer – I can do it completely on my own. It’s perfect because no one needs to hear it. If Sean [from Vinyl Factory] hadn’t dug [the music] out of me I don’t know what would have happened. I think it was fortunate that Sean managed to get me to release it. I don’t think I struggled too much though, it wasn’t too difficult for him to persuade me to make an album…”

He wanders off to test out the DJ equipment for the opening, leaving me to listen to the album at full volume through the big rig. It’s very satisfying at first but then the basement starts slowly filling up with berks in terrible hats chunnering on and clinking champagne glasses. There is much high frequency pitched chatter which is threatening to spill over into full-on braying at any point. When one berk in a terrible hat takes a photograph of the shoes being worn by another berk in a terrible hat, I leave. There’s only so much a reasonable man should be expected to endure in the line of duty. I’d like to hear Luftbobler in Corsica some time, though. It’d probably sound great in there.

Luftbobler is available to buy on Amazon and Dinos is playing at Sonar on the 15th of June.

More from John Doran:

The British Masters – Johnny Marr

The British Masters – Luke Haines

Talking to Bryan Ferry About How He Controlled Our Brains, Minds and Libidos

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