The interview with Peter Saville was something that I’ll always treasure. It took about 6 weeks of persistant pestering. Finally one Saturday morning he allowed me to call him and we spoke for over 2 hours. Even the version I put in Blowback (with my voice completely removed) didn’t do him justice.
Now follows the version I would have liked to have published which clocks up a 2600 word count. Enjoy!
Skipping The Groove
Peter Saville finds a place in history
I’ve been thinking what the essence of my work is, ever since I’ve started to find somewhere to work other than the music industry. The feeling that ‘is there life after this?’ was an issue as early as the late 80s. I became friends with Robert Longer through New Order and he began to encourage me along the lines that maybe I could operate somewhere in the sphere of art if I wanted. He said to me one day ‘Hey man, you’re an artist’ and I laughed because I hadn’t really thought about it.
We didn’t know much about contemporary art when I grew up in
England. It’s ubiquitous now, it’s a recognised part of popular culture, and yet there was no such relationship back in the 70s. I was 20 in 1975, then to me contemporary modern art was another planet. You knew about it and you knew that some people somewhere doing it, probably in
New York. However, if you went off to art college, all the groovy aware kids were in the applied arts: fashion, or textile design or graphics or photography.
I did find this free zone for myself in doing music and it appealed to me when I was 20 because it was groovy. But it also suited me, I don’t think I understood then quite how quintessentially it suited me. I was young, I had trained properly in Graphic Design, I just presumed as I got older I would naturally orientate towards the normal world. Because the music industry, as we know, isn’t the real world, it’s a post adolescent playground.
So in 1988 aged 33, I was making these tentative steps towards adult hood. I’d started working for the White Chapel gallery, for Nick Serota. He was encouraging me, like an amazing tutor who is demanding on you but doesn’t have a narrow preconception in which you must perform. I soon started working for Mark Asterly, a stylist in
Paris and then for Yohji Yamamoto. Yohji is a similarly open minded person. He wanted a spark of inspiration which wasn’t the conventional. The entry level was encouraging – but they didn’t make any money!
I’d seen my music work influence the high street, then I began to see my gallery work and fashion work begin to influence the high street. And this was a very nice feeling but I had a studio of about 8 people. We were in a way the R and D department, exploring the new territory. More often than not getting it right, and seeing more commercially positioned organisations selling it to the high st. They were making money and I was just losing money.
The reason for its conceptual success, I think was certain principles that I’d carried throughout my life. I always wanted to improve and enhance, I always wanted to make things better and to go a bit further. This got me fired up in the first place, from my Graphics studies I saw how amazing it could be. I was looking out from
Manchester to the rest of the world and I saw a Roxy Music cover or a Kraftwerk cover or Italian Vogue, and I saw a quality that you could aspire to. Then I’d look at everyday life and see it shabbily done - so limited in its scope. I knew it could be better. We’d look in our history books and see the works of Bauhaus and classical designers and thought ‘it can be breathtaking.’ There was a sense of a crusade to do more and go further.
The idea of doing a record cover with a musician on the front was just banal, we didn’t need that anymore. You know what this person looks like and you will see them in the press. If it is a musician whose entire ouevre is about their personality like Frank Sinatra, then fine. If you’re dealing with a person whose work is abstract, can’t we go somewhere with the connotations?
I entered this phase in the early 90s trying to find a comfort zone for me in the real world but still with the mission to improve and enhance. And it didn’t work. To a certain extent I’d been spoilt for too long, by having a whole decade through Factory I’d had an almost fine art way of expressing myself. The hard service orientated discipline of high end graphic design was really difficult for me. In fact I didn’t really want to do it. It was hard work in a passive and highly reactive way.
It’s not about taking things somewhere – it’s about service from the clients point of view, the purpose of which is profitability and from your studio’s point of view the purpose of that is also profitability, and if you don’t do that then it doesn’t work. I realised, what drove my studio was something between Ultraism and vanity – and I was bankrupted in 1990. It worked culturally and it worked for my ego and sense of freedom, but it was broke.
So I was forced to face this in 1990 and I spent all of the 90s coming to terms with it. It started this process of, ‘what am I about?’ and during this period I built up an enormous amount of unpublished work, because I had no free zone in which to express myself. Factory had finished, New Order had deconstructed for a while. The thinking of my 30s wasn’t appropriate for a record covers anyway, there was this transition from surface to content.
There’s a piece I did for Yohji called Game Over and that’s the beginning of me thinking about content, but in a service industry they don’t have any use for it. Increasingly in the 90s my feelings about the commidification of culture began to be quite negative, so my own produce content was increasingly at odds with what the commercial sector would want. I was increasingly thinking we don’t need this so I don’t have any feelings for promoting it. Even when I started working with Dior and Nick Knight, it was exciting, but once I’d met the people who ran Dior I loathed and despised them. I thought I don’t want to improve and enhance a façade for very ugly people to hide behind. So I couldn’t focus on it.
Now Yohji was a kindred spirit to that extent. The first real campaign I did for him was in the early 90s and by then he’d got sick of it all. By the end of the 80’s he was tired of this gratuitous consumption and he started to make some collections that were, like Andy Goldworthy’s art, things you couldn’t buy. About this time he saw my album work and he called me and asked me if I would do something like that – without models or clothes.
So the first project was Game Over, he’d done a men’s collection that was like negative pop. The next collection was for a women’s and for that he just went bonkers! You couldn’t wear the clothes. His idea was, you can’t sell this, nobody will buy it. That’s the beginning of me thinking about content but in a service industry they don’t have any use for it. It’s not what a client wants, you have to sit down and think about what is right for this client occasionally it brushes with something you care about then that’s good. Increasingly in the nineties my feelings about the commodification of culture began to be quite negative, so my own produce content was increasingly at odds with what the commercial sector would want. I increasingly thinking we don’t need this so I don’t have any feelings for promoting it. Even when I started working with Dior and Nick Knight it was exciting, but once I started to meet the people who ran Dior I loathed and despised them. I thought I don’t want to improve and enhance a façade for very ugly people to hide behind. So I couldn’t focus on it.
The magazines hated the Y campaign. In
America the people who stocked his clothes, refused to pay for his advertising. It’s funny because if you look at a Condor Garcon shirt ad now, it’s fine. Back in 1991 if it didn’t have clothes in it they wouldn’t let you do it, What happened in between was, design became the new advertising.
By 2000 I was able to stop worrying about it…what happened was my history caught up with me. In the late 90s I was rehabilitated as a legend, they came and searched me out. In fact I’d carried on doing a few groovy things like Suede and Pulp. I hadn’t sold out, I hadn’t started doing Findus Fish Finger packaging. In fact I was still great. I’d retained my value and most importantly I hadn’t sold out.
So the retrospective pedestal started to be built for me which concluded with the book from Frieze and the show. I’ve seen myself since then become my own brand. I’ve almost transcended the service because people talk about Peter Saville as a thing. It doesn’t matter what I do, the fact that I’ve done it is a quality. The last few years have been what do I do with my own brand?
Now over my lifetime, the everyday person in the
UK began increasingly sharing in a thing that we now call lifestyle. The last piece in my show is a print saying ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ If you look now at what became of all this on one side it is better, on another it wasn’t supposed to be a tax on the people. It wasn’t supposed to make them addicts.
What I don’t like is the corporate abuse of counter culture. It’s over the counter culture the multinational large companies have figured out how to commoditise spirit. I wrote in my note book the other day ‘Smells like teen spirit? Sells like teen spirit’ Because it used to mean something and you used to be able to rely on it so if I walked down the road to a shop or café and it had a design sensibility that suggested to me positive things about the shop they were turned on and it was the best place to go. When I walk down the street now and see a designed shop it’s like a warning sign! It’s like you’re going to get fucked in here and you don’t need it.
Last summer I made a note in my note book, pop culture in the 60s was like LSD: a bit dangerous but exciting and definitely mind expanding. Everyone who’s taken LSD goes ‘wow I’d seen things I’d never seen before.’ Pop culture now is like Crack. There are no redeeming features to Crack, it will numb you out for a while, it’s totally addictive and will kill you
A case has been put for saying that my True Faith record cover was supposed to epitomise the E generation. Strictly speaking it isn’t. But the principal behind my cover designs is they’re open to interpretation. A place where I like to put my work is in between things, somewhere between the fact of a thing and the feeling of the recipient, I interject in the zone between the two.
Here are the facts: New Order write a song called True Faith that does have something to do with drugs and something to do with Bernard having a child, – that’s a fact – the audience has their own opinions and in between the two I put something. I intersect that zone with an image that is open to interpretation. This is why I didn’t like putting titles on things because it was so concrete and obvious. I quite like this imagery being an indefinite thing, it’s like a palinthset it’s open to interpretation.
For something like a record cover that suits me because it all means different things to different people. So when I am confronted someone’s luscious chocolate bar, there’s nowhere to dream. There’s a big difference between a bunch of musicians and a song which in a way is quite genuine, and a carefully cynically considered new television set which isn’t even the best they can do it’s the one they’re going to do this season, there’s nothing very honourable there. This is a lie. Can I make people dream about that? I don’t really want to.
The professional work for hire is more defined and categorised, even doing a Pulp or Suede cover is Jarvis or Brett’s cover and it’s John Galliano’s Dior campaign. I’m the facilitator that helps them realise their vision. It’s very mercenary but for nice countries. If they’re for countries I don’t believe in and they just want me to kill people, then I don’t agree.
Alongside that it’s this tentative attempt at dipping my toe in water, how can I make my own things? The Taxi project with Julian Mori was for
London records building, there were 12 sound graphs. They asked me to make pieces to go in the building so it was commissioned, but it wasn’t selling anything.
Another piece is the 3D rendering of Unknown Pleasures. I thought, every other fucker on earth has done something on Unknown Pleasures why don’t I? It’s a thing now – wherever I go in the world I see a fucking t-shirt. So I’m exploring Unknown Pleasures as a myth. Bill Holding at morph works in 3D render programs and he started it. I was able to see how it was interesting. It’s kind of virtual still but it’s a thing.
I don’t have a fixed opinion about art yet. But there’s something quite northern and pragmatic about me. If you see what I do in an art gallery it’s quite revealing. I’ll go through the rooms in about 5 minutes, unless something really strikes a chord with me and I look at it for ages. I then go to the shop and I’ll spend hours in there. I’m particularly fascinated about the point where art and life meet. For me art that lives in isolation is not interesting as an end in itself. What I’m interested in is art evolving and enhancing life. That’s why I like the shop because I can see how it’s effecting the ephemera of life and how it can intersects with how we live. That for me is the important bit, unless the wonderous is filtered into the everyday what’s the point?
When I did a record cover, it went into homes, it affects people, it changes things. One pet theory about this designer era was we brokered art into the mainstream. By using pop medium as a platform for change and cultural awareness, we got them young, in something they loved anyway. The music took it to their hearts and it delivered a message to their heads. Without the music it would not have been delivered. What was delivered was something that was relevant post adolescence. Kids in the 60s probably had loads of Grateful Dead ephemera but when they came back from college it wasn’t going to be part of life, so they shed it like a skin and moved on. People who grew up on Factory haven’t shed that skin, in fact I meet them now and they want business cards like their New Order record covers. So the music delivered it to impressionable souls at an impressionable time.
I find this quite an interesting thing that Design UK was delivered through music. The culmination of it that is on Wednesday of this week I was appointed Creative Director of the City of
Manchester. I’m not sure what the job involves yet but this is surely a new phase.