From the archives… Cheap Thrills, Ilam Press
MG: So Cheap Thrills finally arrived in my mail box today… and I’ve had a chance to start making my way through the publication, starting with the editorials by both yourself and Erin. I liked reading about Erin’s experience of producing this thing; the idea that she didn’t have a plan as such; she was acting off an impulse that something like Cheap Thrills should exist. It struck me that in a way this motivation was very similar to starting a band? Bring a certain set certain motivations and people together and see what happens? This idea is then kind of echoed in your own piece where you talk about deciding to do this project despite probably being too busy already… that you couldn’t not be involved… that the logistics of producing it was somehow transcended by what the book might end up representing and meaning. So, to find a question out of all of that… can you expand a little on why you couldn’t not be involved in this project—I’m assuming it has a lot to do with the fact that the worlds of Graphic Design and Music are already constantly interrelating in your own practice?
LW: Yeah, well I guess it’s always difficult to say no to something when you think that it might be going to be pretty cool? I’m very promiscuous in terms of my musical tastes, and I suppose that eclecticism moves through my broader interests in terms of other things too, especially graphic design and publishing. I’m always trying to do too much, and possibly not doing anything that well? But when I think about not doing something it just sort of terrifies me. Once I’ve thought to do something I just can’t not do it. Much to my long-suffering girlfriend’s displeasure.
I already knew Erin, and my band The Hex Waves had played with her band The Les Baxters a few times, and I dig them. I was also sort of intuitively thinking that some interesting things were happening here (Christchurch) in terms of music right now, there’s some really great bands around, and while I didn’t talk about that specifically with Erin, we knew we were on a similar sort of wavelength or something. I also liked what she was talking about in terms of putting some fairly wordy academic writing together with some more anecdotal kind of stuff from practicing musicians. It sounded a bit like what Jonty and I were trying to do with The National Grid.
I mentioned in that brief editorial for Cheap Thrills that music was what got me into graphic design. I think that’s possibly quite a common story for anyone of my generation as we bought music as a physical thing, usually a 12 inch record, and, of course, graphic design played a large role in that. Also I made posters for bands I was in as a teenager, and so when I realised that making this sort of stuff was an actual job I was sort of amazed. But then, a few years later as I mentioned, I figured out that all the bands I liked didn’t really make any money, and so working for the ‘music industry’ as such didn’t really appeal to me. When I eventually became a ‘real’ graphic designer I had a bit of a break from playing music (I was pretending to be a ‘grown up’), but then returned to it, partly so that I could do some more interesting design again. That was about 15 years ago now, and since then music and graphic design have gone very much hand in hand for me. I joke about being in a band just so I can make posters and stuff, but it’s actually half true. I think the reason I like to play in quite different bands too, is that I’m quite interested in the process of translation that music affords. Translating a sound or an attitude that exists in a song, or a set of songs, into some sort of visual correlative I find really interesting – trying to get the image to ‘resonate’ with the sound.
I’m a big believer in the idea that ‘all art aspires to music’. An idea I think I discovered via Malevich, the painter, years ago, but which comes from an 19th Century English writer called Walter Pater. I tend to agree with this sentiment because music, specifically instrumental music, is generally totally abstract. It doesn’t need to be representational to do its job. Of course the visual arts have aspired to this sort of abstraction but, for me at least, that never works as well, or in the same way as music. Often with visual arts you need to be quite educated to know what’s going on, and to enjoy it. With music you don’t need to know anything, it’s a purely visceral connection we have with it. It’s beyond explanation, it doesn’t make any sense, and yet we all (most of us) engage with it (in its various forms).
MG: Do you see Cheap Thrills as a chance to kind of capture an aspect of that visceral connection? Do you consider the fact that the publication was self-produced on a Risograph as important? In some way consistent with the ephemeral nature of the subject matter?
LW: I think that first question’s really interesting, because I’m not sure graphic design can be ‘visceral’ in the same sense music can. I wish it could, but I don’t think it can? There’s a Lawrence Weiner video/interview where he says “graphic design is visceral”, but I think graphic design is generally more cerebral than visceral. I’m in the middle of an interview with Stuart Bailey right now where we’ve been throwing this back and forth a bit. He’s definitely on the cerebral side of things, I think because he prioritises language. I’ve been sort of playing devil’s advocate and trying (mostly failing) to argue for a kind of pure formalism that runs through all graphic design that could potentially be engaged with in a visceral way (by both the designer and/or the receiver).
In this sense I suppose I think that, yes, there is a sort of visceral connection you could have with Cheap Thrills. Which I think is more to do with the publication as an object. The weight of it, the paper stock, the way it feels in your hands, and the kind of cultural baggage that implies. I’m really happy we made it in the format of a paperback novel. It was quite specifically based on a Penguin Classic, and I was interested in the social history of that – the idea that good and/or important information should be reproduced cheaply and without fuss for anybody to read. And I think there’s a clanging resonance there with the type of music/bands being discussed inside. I think there’s a political dimension to these kinds of bands because no one is making much money at all playing this sort of music, although I’d argue all day long that this kind of music is fundamentally more important to culture/society than the kind of stuff that gets more attention in the popular media. Innovation’s become a hollowed out buzz-word for mediocre corporate drones these days, but the kinds of bands represented in Cheap Thrills tend to actually be doing, or trying to do, something new, and to make a contribution to culture that doesn’t have anything at all to do with capital.
Cheap Thrills was produced very cheaply. Although mostly because a lot of people put in a lot of time and effort for nothing in return. So it’s not ‘cheap’ in that sense, and again that connection to the bands it represents. The other contributing factor to our ‘being able to get it done’, as you rightly point out, was our access to the risograph, and obviously I’m in a good position to be able to do things like this. I work at the University of Canterbury ‘Ilam’ School of Fine Arts, and a few years ago now we set up this thing called the Ilam Press. Which was really just myself and Aaron Beehre getting the university to buy us a really decent two-colour riso, and then approaching artists and galleries etc to make short-run publications. Of course, this grew and we got more ambitious, to the point that now it’s like we have two full-time jobs.
My interest in the risograph is primarily as a means of production. I’m not actually overly interested in the aesthetics of it, although I know that certain projects I’ve done – Head Full of Snakes for example – the reason people like it is largely because of the way it looks and what we did with the risograph to achieve that. I’m very aware that the ‘look’ of the risograph is more-or-less fashionable these days, but I really couldn’t care less. My focus, and I’d say the focus of the Ilam Press (publisher of Cheap Thrills), is on content. So yes, on one hand the risograph is fundamentally important to this project, but then formally/aesthetically not so much.
MG: Yeah—fashionable-ness of the Risograph aside—as a means of production it holds a certain quality; in essence providing a filter through which the content is viewed/received. Connecting this back to the idea of visceral vs. cerebral, I can’t stop reframing this as a question about immediacy; both in how something is produced and subsequently received. I can definitely identify with the idea that when I produce something that’s chiefly formal/aesthetic the work is best when produced quickly; in the process seemingly giving the design an immediacy for the viewer. Conversely, when work is chiefly content-driven (read cerebral), aesthetic concerns often feel disingenuous if given to much consideration? As I’m writing this I feel a bunch of contradictions at play… but it strikes me that music works in the same way? If something is laboured over for too long, the danger of losing that immediacy multiplies? Relating this back to Ilam Press, do you think that an ownership of production helps your work to retain an immediacy despite the cerebral nature of much of what you produce? (I guess this further identifies the production aspect of these projects as an important part of the whole design process)
LW: Most of the projects I’ve done through the Ilam Press have had ridiculously short turn around times so, yeah, there sure is some sort of immediacy there I guess. But I have a tendency to labour over even the smallest decisions design-wise, so there are an awful lot of very late nights and I’m not sure my work has much of a sense of formal/aesthetic immediacy? The design of Cheap Thrills was collaborative though, and Luke Shaw might have a different perspective on that? I suppose there’s an urgency available to us in our owning the means of production that does address what you’re getting at here, and, perhaps more than other projects, comes through in Cheap Thrills. Generally publishing something in print takes a long time, but we are able to turn things around pretty quickly. I guess we’re like a small record label in that respect. Or small anything actually. Size is usually what slows things down; too many people involved, too many stakeholders, too much money on the line, etc. Being small allows for a certain proximity too, a type of closeness that you don’t get with larger corporate or bureaucratic things. We tend to have fairly close personal relationships with everyone involved in a project, I think we’re closer to the content in that respect – compared to a larger publishing enterprise – and I think that comes across in the stuff we produce.
MG: I think that idea of having a certain degree of ‘closeness’ to the content is very evident in Cheap Thrills – the more articles I read, the greater the sense of inter-connectedness becomes; in essence, this is a portrait of a community of practitioners, isn’t it? And I think the fact that you are part of that community naturally bleeds through into the feel of the publication as a designed object. Finally, what other projects are you working on at Ilam Press… and how do people find out more/get hold of Cheap Thrills and your other publications?
LW: Regarding your first point, you’re right I guess but I think if there’s a ‘community’ represented here it’s still a fairly disparate one though. I’ve been involved with Stink Magnetic and Kato Records in the past and know all those people well, but there’s a lot of people in Cheap Thrills I’ve never met. I think the connection here though is that we’re/they’re all working away in the margins of popular culture, and there’s a tendency for margin-dwellers to help each other out quite a bit. We had a few local musicians, writers, and fans come in and help collate this issue, which was a huge help.
In terms of other things, I’m getting busy now on the next issue of Head Full of Snakes and Aaron’s about to reprint the Lyttelton book he did with Maree Henry. We’re going to the Melbourne Art Book Fair again this year and we’ll have these titles available there as well as some of the last copies of Cheap Thrills, which we’re actually keeping aside now for that. So actually this issue of Cheap Thrills is pretty much sold out, sorry! We’re talking about possibly doing issue #2 mid-year though, so yeah not too long to wait for the next one. Anyone who’s interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org for now, and Erin can keep you informed or put you on a mailing list or something.