MUSIC JOURNAILIST LAURA SNAPES INTERVIEWS LIAM JOLLY
What was your gateway into art?
I was always drawing, it was the only thing I ever really felt good at. From a young age I remember saying I wanted to be an artist. I obviously now know that I had no idea what that really meant.
My first real exposure to art was going to Tate St Ives whilst at sixth form and being blown away by the work of Frost, Heron, Lanyon etc. This was the first time I’d ever been to a gallery, and I’d certainly never seen art like that before.
This was what gave me the bug, this was when I started digging. I became obsessed with Picasso and having only seen his work in print I made a pilgrimage to London in 1996 to see a real one. As I was leaving Tate Britain that day feeling a little conflicted by this encounter – the experience was a jolt to what I’d expected after having got to know the work so well via crisply presented reproductions in the pages of my books and magazine – there was a sign that said, “The Turner Prize”. I had heard of it, but I didn’t know what it was. I went in.
Well, my mind was blown. I had no idea what was going on. All I did know was that what I thought was art, and what I thought I knew about it, was merely scratching the surface. I left Tate Britain that day taking a deep breath, and knowing I had a lot of work to do.
I often think of that moment, and still keep the admission ticket to the Turner Prize from that very day on the studio wall as reminder that there’s always more to do; you can always go further. I suppose that was the gateway into what I do now.
What was your gateway into music?
I’d always enjoyed music. My cousin gifted me his 7 inch collection and an old record player when I was two (namely a lot of Shakin’ Stevens records and The Best of Showaddywaddy) which I loved. My parents were very social so there were always people around and music was always on, but they weren’t musical.
My dad had a second-hand car garage in Redruth and a guy called Barry came to work for him washing cars. Barry and his wife Vicky had recently moved from Leicester and were ex-pro musos – they’d won the TV talent show New Faces back in the day. Barry was a drummer.
Soon Vicky began performing on the cabaret scene in Cornwall – social clubs, pubs and holiday camps, that sort of thing. I was 13 and started going out with them to help carry and set up the PA. Soon I got promoted to controlling the reverb button, then to operate the follow spot when needed. It all felt very rock’n’roll! We would do three gigs a week most weeks then I’d be back at school the next day. Looking back, for someone quite quiet and not really fitting in at school, it was quite the education. Some of the things those young eyes saw!
Barry was always tapping along with the music (Vicky performed to backing tapes) and I was fascinated with what he was hearing that I couldn’t. He tuned me into it. They also had brilliant stories of gigging and touring over the years, and Barry was a real dude. It all just struck a chord with me. I wanted to explore more of that world myself, so I signed up for drum lessons.
Somehow drumming came easily to me. Barry and Vicky bought me my first drum kit and soon I was in my first band. I was 15 then and have played ever since. If it wasn’t for those guys, the gigs and experiences of that time, I certainly wouldn’t have had the journey and career in music that I’ve had so far, and can guarantee that life wouldn’t have been quite so colourful!
What was your first band?
God, I’m missing out a few early school efforts here on purpose, but the first proper band was called the Blues Busters. We were a pub blues band. It was wild, I was 17 and the youngest in the band. They were already well established when I joined. We played a Iot of gigs covering things like Canned Heat, Dr Feelgood and Jimi Hendrix. I loved it. That was another education, I became a different person in that band…and for the better!
I love the story of Barry and Vicky. You’ve been in bands that have had some national interest (and you even auditioned for Razorlight!) but your commitment to grassroots music, and also to the joys of covers bands, seems as though it might stem back to these two? Do you approach all the creative work you do from any defined ethos?
I’m all for the underdog. From starting in the holiday camps with Vicky, which is obviously one end of the spectrum, I’ve been lucky enough to go on to work with some of the biggest artists in the world and seeing how those machines operate at that scale is quite something, and a privilege. But for me it’s not about the art anymore (or less so anyway) and feels like something else (and obviously about the $$s). There’s an energy about a new band in a small venue playing their own stuff, they have it all to play for. It’s the exciting bit.
When I returned from uni in 2001 there was nothing going on here (for me anyway), so I started my own club nights and worked with local bands to try and build something, and I feel like we did that. That was the gateway into the music industry for me as things really built from there. I’ve since approached art projects like CMR (was cofounder there in 2011) and Auction House with a similar logic.
For me it’s about not waiting around for things to happen: let’s build it if we must. It’s also about creating a space to help others achieve what they need to, so we can all move on together. Really just creating the things that I remember as truly lacking when I first came home all those years ago, armed with a thirst and desire to do stuff, but with no one, or anywhere to do it with.
We’re certainly not lacking now, by the way. It’s a totally different place, the landscape here in Cornwall for contemporary art is incredible now. I feel lucky and proud to be part of it!
When did your art practice and your music practice first intersect?
I still don’t know if they have fully. I’ve always been bad and keeping things in their boxes: this is my art, this is the music, this is the job, that sort of thing. It was during the first crit on my MA that my tutor Andy Webster told me that drumming was very much in the art and vice versa, pointing out that they clearly informed one another and were approached similarly. I struggled to see that for a long time, but as the penny started to drop the possibilities became exciting.
This is the stuff I’m still working through now, it’s kind of what I’m talking about in this show to a certain extent; how all these things inform, or are, the practice. There’s loads more to do, I don’t feel it’s anywhere near there yet, there’s a lot more blurring needed.
What do you think “being an artist” meant to you as a kid? What have been the biggest surprises about the reality of that? When did you first feel like you could claim that you were an artist?
I suppose it was about being able to remain creative as a grown up. As I say, I was always drawing and making things. I remember thinking that being an inventor would be cool too… I suppose there’s an element of that in being an artist. (I also remember wanting to be a gangster after watching Bugsy Malone – that didn’t really work out!) I was just aware that creativity was the thing for me. Apart from later finding drumming, it’s the only thing that’s ever felt natural to me. More academic subjects I was truly rubbish at, and don’t get me started on exams!
At the crossroads between school and college, I remember being very aware that by taking this path and making the commitment to being an artist was going to be a rough ride. I knew I could forget about things like financial security, houses and such. Turns out I was right. Maybe the surprise is that it’s been even bumpier than predicted a lot of the time!!
First and foremost, I’m an artist, I’ve never not felt that. But I still struggle with saying it to be honest. Often in response to questions like “What do you do?” I tend mutter something along the lines of, “Oh, a bit of this and that… I work in music and art and stuff…” which I do annoy myself by doing, as it belittles this very precious thing that I get annoyed at when often people give it very little value. So need to get better at that.
Did you know any artists as a kid? As a boy in Redruth in the 80s and 90s, and one who you say didn’t fit in, how did people take your desire to be an artist? If you encountered any negativity, how did you hold on to your purpose?
No, none. My great gran had painted in her early days and apparently had exhibitied quite a bit. My mum and aunty had some of her paintings that I remember thinking were fascinating things as a kid. But other than discovering things for myself, there was no other way in.
I don’t think I ever really shared my desire to be an artist really. By the time I was a teenager I was playing in bands, so the focus of who I was and what I did to my peers was on that really.
Is there a quality – or sensibility – to your childhood drawing that ensures in your work today?
No, I can’t say there is. I used to draw a lot of cars – Lamborghinis particularly, I was obsessed. Still am a bit. But only with the 80/90s ones, like the Countach. It’s a symbol that’s been circling my practice a lot over the last year or so, and I’ve made a few small works that reference it. I think I’ve been secretly trying to find a way to crowbar it in somewhere. In fact, if you look closely at this show, you may spot one.
What was it about Picasso?
I think he was the first artist that I came across where I understood that you can change the way people see the world and make a real difference as an artist. It seems silly saying that now, but up until then all I knew was drawing still lifes at school, and had only just been to my first art gallery.
There was also a romance – he’d obviously been well documented and was very famous… it was all those frills that also caught my eye, I suppose. Maybe it was the first time I realised there were artists as famous as bands. It felt quite sexy and rock’n’roll. I don’t know.
Far more importantly, it was his Cubist period that really got me going.
Can you think of other examples of how you’ve encountered art in a way that surprised you or opened up something in your mind?
There’s been so many, but I think a good example for me is Richard Wilsons 20:50, which I first saw at the original Saatchi Gallery. When I first got to uni I’d seen images of it and thought someone had just built a replica of the ceiling and was like, whatever…(Remember, I knew nothing then… I’d only got as far as, and absolutely gorging on, abstract expressionism by this point!) I went to Boundary Road, saw it in real life and still it took a fair while before my brain caught up and I released that it was actually oil and a reflection. It was another moment that blew my mind and had a huge effect on me.
What was next on your journey of discovery after going to the Tate? Was it self-led? When did art school come into it, and what’s your view of art school? What did you specialise in at MA?
A bit of both, I’d watch documentaries and read books. I would go to extracurricular life drawing classes and things like that to get my chops up. Actually, I remember going to a class at the St Ives School at Porthmeor when I was 17 – when I arrived, they told me that they all took turns taking their clothes off to model for each other… they clearly recognised the nervous gullible teenager in the room!
I went to do my BA in 98. I had taken a year out prior as I was totally uninterested in going to uni. It was my tutor Tracey Haynes at sixth form who said that if I was serious about being an artist, then I had to go as I’d never compete in the real world. Perhaps that was the best bit of advice I ever had. I can’t imagine what would have happened had I not gone to do that.
How did Andy Webster liken your drumming to your art and vice versa? What was the penny-drop moment for you?
Not sure, I suppose he saw a logic and approach in the work that made sense. The things I’ve taken from it since are mostly formal things, rhythm, repetition, gesture, performance… but also attitude.
Over the years I’ve known you (20 next year, I think) art has gradually come to take up more of your life, to today where alongside music it’s pretty much the entirety of your output. What has it taken to be able to facilitate that? And how has your relationship to your work changed as you’ve had more time for it - and perhaps it’s become more of a defining part of how people see you?
I took myself to uni and came out the other side with all the financial turmoil you’d expect. Because of this, I told myself I had to make it work. I couldn’t just go and get a job to pay for that experience which would then hold me back from doing the thing that was the whole reason I went to start with. So, I made a commitment to my practice, that it had to come first.
The first couple of years post-BA were OK. I had a few shows out of Cornwall. But gradually surviving took over and making work petered out. Also, there was nothing happening here to engage with. I knew no artists, there was nothing. I felt very isolated. I was working part time in a record shop (where we met!) and was adamant that it had to be part-time so that the rest of the time I made work. This was a good plan, but the reality of this was very different. I was playing in bands, and really spending too much time having a good time. I didn’t make much work for a good five years. In my mind I was very much an artist and was always thinking and making notes, but the further away making got, the more anxiety about finding a way in set in, and an avenue out seemed impossible. So I’d just go to the pub again.
Nearly 10 years after my BA and still very serious about being an artist, I applied for the MA at Falmouth. I had to find a way to get the ball rolling as it was bringing me down far too much that I wasn’t doing what I’d set out to do.
It was completing my MA when I feel I really got to work – this was a turning point. I was working as a music promoter then too, and looking back I can now see that what I thought was wasted time on my work was in fact being used to learn in a different way, particularly a lot about the music industry, working with bands and promoting. It’s all stuff that has massively fed into the work I do now so I can see its value, and realise it wasn’t necessarily wasted time. Just part of the process.
I’ve always had a strong sense of the sort of work I want to make and have never strayed from that really. I suppose the more connected I feel, and the more time I have on it, the work and I just get on better. It’s funny – people often say, “Do you still play drums?” when they’ve not seen you on stage for a while, and vice versa. They seem to struggle to define you if you do a few things. So, if people are seeing me as an artist more so these days, that’s great... it’s only taken 20 years!
When you think about blending disciplines, are there artists who inform your music, and musicians who inform your art? I always think the most exciting criticism finds the shared DNA - the textures and sensibilities - between different art forms.
That’s a great question that I don’t know how to answer. I think a quick answer would be music that influenced the art is more relevant. I listen to a lot of electronic music when in the studio, music that those that know me may be surprised by, but it often feels more like the work than rock music does. But having said that I also love uncomplicated, rough-around-the-edges punk and garage bands for the DIY, we-can-do-anything, fuck-you spirit. There’s definitely some of that in the way I work. If I’m told I can’t do something, and if I really want to, then often my default position is to find a way to make it happen regardless. I guess that attitude comes from music more than art for me.
Community is clearly really important to how you approach music and art. They’re not solo, solipsistic pursuits for you in the least. (If I was being overly poetic, I think you could make a point about the drummer being the anchor of any group, which is how I think of you as an artist.) Is community part of the work for you? Or something separate, a nice consequence of it? You’ve had it in music for longer than art, I think - I remember you talking to me about the Cornwall Workshop at Kestle Barton being a real nucleus for the latter. How did that change things for you?
I’ve only recently come to realise that what I do is all about community, I’d never really joined the dots to realise that before. I’d always thought I just want to do things, so get on and do them. So yes, while that’s still bedding in, I suppose currently it just feels like a nice consequence to the work.
The Cornwall Workshop was a major turning point for me. It was a week-long residential workshop and I entered feeling nervous and experiencing huge pangs of imposter syndrome, but left having had it confirmed once and for all that I was most definitely an artist (phew). It was such an incredible experience, and the first time I’d ever spent time with people from exactly the world I wanted to be in. Learning from others – all of whom I saw as way more advanced than me – that they felt the same anxieties and had the same struggles in one way or another to keep doing what they did, I think was pivotal.
I also left feeling like I was part of something. It was the springboard into a broader, more critical and ambitious network; and I made some really great friends in the process. I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity.
The idea of “Cornish” art carries a lot of connotations, from the St Ives school to infinite paintings of beach scenes, caricatured depictions of rural life, more cutting-edge work; that tussle between how the place is seen within and without, even divisions and contradictions within the place itself. Do you think of yourself as a Cornish artist? What does that mean to you? You went to London to study but have made your life and work in Redruth ever since.
No, not really. I’m an artist based in Cornwall, that’s for sure, but I’ve never really thought about it. Although, there is a piece in this show that’s giving a nod to Carn Brea and borrows rocks from it. So maybe I’ve started to think about it more than I realise. Is that the most Cornish work I’ve made so far?!
I was born in Redruth, and always wanted to leave, and did. But ended up back here. I hated it, and now love it. Redruth allows me to keep doing this work, especially since I’ve had Auction House. But I’m always looking out. This is my home and my base, but I want to keep reaching out with the work. That feels important, and as I said earlier, I won’t compromise on the work I make. It’s been said before that it doesn’t look or feel Cornish (or words to that effect), which I still don’t understand as I just make the work that I make.
Here I’d like to direct people to artist Sovay Berriman’s project MESKLA | Brewyon Drudh, there’s a podcast series on Spotify including an interview with myself and artist Georgia Gendall where we get much deeper into this very topic!
You tried writing poetry recently for the first time and had a few works published. Was that nerve-wracking? How different a form of expression did it feel?
No, it was a revelation to be honest! It came from a workshop with Ella Frears. That was the nerve-wracking bit as I’d signed up and knew she would make us read the things out we’d written, and I hate talking in groups (this was during Covid so it was on Zoom). But it went brilliantly and really clicked with me.
Ella is incredible and gets the best out of you. I was lucky to then receive further funding to continue working with her as a mentor for a few months. It’s been a joy. The writing feels like the thing I needed to seep into the cracks of the works a bit more so that I could get deeper, more personal and stop hiding so much. Again, there’s a lot more to do, it’s very early days on that.
But yeah, I entered five of the six poems I’d ever written to a poetry open call and two got published. I couldn’t believe it… back to the beginning of imposter syndrome we go!
Tell me more about this show - and also how you think about the relationship between practice and product?
My process is open-ended: things roll into each other, works get reused and reconfigured, motifs may go away for a while then remerge much later. So this show is just a collection of stuff that makes sense right now.
I’m digging into my personal biography and opening up a bit more than ever before, perhaps thanks to the writing. But that aside, this is a collection of works looking at the edges, looking at how artworks perform and things overlap.
For me it’s all about the process and the idea, the object always teeters on the edges a bit. I really wanted to try and not bring (too much) more stuff into the world for this show, so wanted to use what I had, or reconfigure things. I’ve managed it pretty well, I think? I like that most of this work will have to stop being art at the end and go back to its normal life once the show is over.
In what ways are you opening up with this show – what are you exploring in a biographical sense?
Hmmmm, well…I think I’m letting down the barriers a little bit, only a tad though. I’m just trying to put a bit more of me in there, and moving away from just talking about art being art and what it can do. I have always put this stuff into the work, but then buried it in the work so far that it’s not really evident to anyone but me, I’m trying to change that a bit. I’m definitely exploring this family thing and lineage more, and where I sit in it, what’s important etc. Especially as we’ve been on quite a journey to try and have children ourselves, it feels all the more poignant.
I think family comes into your work a lot - your nan’s table lives in your studio and is a quarter of a circle, which fits your Four Four concept. You’ve made work with car mats, which relates to your dad’s job. Amen Brother related to your brothers. What are you trying to unpack or express in your work with regard to family?
Amen Brother was a film I made where I remixed the Amen Break by playing a game of football. It’s a very long story, but a few years earlier I’d found my older brother Craig (my dad’s son). He’s a cockney, lives in Canvey Island, works in the city, loves the football. A very different life to me. But, we’re so alike I found it fascinating.
My other brother Elliott, who I grew up with, is also a huge football fan. (He supports Arsenal, Craig West Ham, which I find amusing.) I don’t follow football at all and have very little interest in it (which is funny as since I made that film, people think I love football), so this film was an attempt by me to make an artwork that used their world as a way to try and engage them into mine.
Making it opened up a lot of stuff to do with family. I knew neither of my dad’s parents as they’d died long before I was born, and only knew my mum’s mum (whose table sits in my studio). I never knew who my grandad even was on that side of the family, so to me it became this idea that I had a quarter missing, I didn’t make a whole. That’s where the idea of the show and its title came from.
Within the work I’m certainly exploring identity and how we play various versions of self, but then how we’re all really versions of the same thing through our family lineage. The parts we play to each other, and to others… it’s ongoing…
Auction House is temporarily shut while the Buttermarket is revamped. How do you want to develop it when it comes back?
I’d like to keep as much of the original spirit as possible, but I know it has to change. It’s going to have to secure funding to survive, which will change things a tad. It’s ran on nothing but fresh air and elbow grease until now, but that’s not sustainable long term. I think it’ll be possible to keep the spirit, it just might be a bit smarter around the edges, we’ll see.
With Auction House, how much do you think about expanding your community from artists to the town? What’s the goal there?
Always! That’s one of the main goals for me, and to an extent it’s already started to happened. I’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm from the local community for what we do. It’s absolute proof that things shouldn’t be dumbed down; you should just be welcoming to all. Some of the best conversations, reactions to the work and repeat visitors (regular art gang aside) have been people from the town. I am aware though that we’ve only scratched the surface, and already started talks with some very exciting partners about how to work together moving forward to really develop relationships with the community, outside of the space.
In terms of surprising yourself with work and different registers, how have you surprised yourself with the work you’ve made for this show?
This show feels more like a public outing for some of those surprises that have already happened in the studio, so there’s been more of a refining of things that I’ve been sat with for a little while. Although, as I write this it’s now eight days until the show opens, and for me, this is always where the really good stuff starts to happen. I’ll work permanently now until the doors open, just to see what happens, and things always changes during install. The whole show may change between now and then. Ask me again at the opening!
I love the continuation of the Amen Brother artwork into the shelving piece with the rocks from Carn Brea. How does the new work evolve the piece for you?
I think it’s become more personal. I realised that Carn Brea has been there most of my life, just over my shoulder, but almost invisible to me. Walking during lockdown was when I really started to see it properly, and actually feel it as much as anything else. It’s a very charged place to be. I started taking smaller stones from there and sticking them on paintings, and for this work they’ve just got bigger. I plan to take them back after the show though and set them free, back into the wild! The work with the shelves echo the Carn’s proportions, and in the space it’s just there. It’s not really doing much, you have to walk around it, it’s big, it’s like an anchor, which is what a beat is, and what Carn Brea feels like to me.
Thinking about covers bands – and themes of repetition and repurposing in your art, particularly the Amen Brother film and this new work – how do you feel about originality?
I mean nothing is original, is it? But I do like to see and hear things that feel new, things that feel challenging. I like to be challenged, and personally enjoy clashing things together to see what happens. I like to take things from different registers and sit them next to each other to see if the work will surprise me. I like it when things happen that you couldn’t have possibly come up with or imagined. That’s when things feel original to me, when they’re a bit tricky and you’re not sure what to do next. Or even if they’re any good. I love it most when things just seem to fall from the ether and look like you’ve had no hand in it. Those are my favourites things – they’re the best works, that’s where the magic is!
I really like what George wrote about your story of seeing Mark E Smith possibly winking at performing the part of Mark E Smith. You perform on stage, you promote other performers, and your work sort of performs on your behalf; in this show, the curtains will present the exhibition itself as a sort of performance to passing drivers and pedestrians, and you say you want to look at how artworks perform. What do you mean? How do you think about the idea of performance within your work?
Yes, that was quite something. He’d prowled the stage destroying everything in his wake. I was watching from the wings and every time he came my way I made sure I legged it before he got to me. But at one point he caught me out, I had nowhere to run. He’d parked himself on a flight case next to me while the band soldiered on. I tried my best to ignore his presence but soon found myself nervously looking around to be met with a cheeky smile and knowing wink! Despite the apparent chaos, he knew exactly what he was doing. It was an incredible performance, and a perfect example of this performing of a non-performance, and turning things inside out and upside down that interests me so much.
I’m always thinking about performance in the work. Whether that means a painting that hangs on the wall that actually is a cheap digital print of a load of brush marks that I’ve made on the computer and can be reproduced a million times, or something very public like a load of buskers in Redruth high street spread out – so not looking like art at all and just solitary normal buskers, who may be totally ignored – but they’re all playing the same song at the same time. It’s these edges of things, when they’re layered and harder to discern, but perhaps you know that something’s not right – just at first you’re not sure what it is. So, the more time you spend with something the more it gives you.
One really powerful example of this that I always come back to was watching Tommy Cooper live on TV as a child the night he died: a man known for messing up tricks and testing the edges to get a laugh, but in reality, a highly skilled magician and part of the magic circle. As he had a heart attack and died on stage in front of the audience, they laugh and applaud. It was a truly incredible moment where performance and reality clash, and that space between the two confused.
There’s also a thing about hierarchies and value in this. I’ve got a lot time for a precious art objects but it doesn’t yet feel like the work I should be making, so that’s where I enjoy bringing in a lot of elements and references from other registers that can perform being art for the time I need them to. If that makes sense?
The photos of the tattoo of a dagger through a heart are really interesting. George writes that your conversations “have revolved around the ways in which seemingly individuated strategies are, in fact, often communal”. What interests you – excites you? Comforts you? – about that idea?
Well, I’d always assumed that I was just getting on with some selfish pursuit that had no real impact on anyone else. It was George that first made me see that actually all of the stuff I do, or have done, from working in the record shop, to putting on gigs to now having Auction House, are all about people and community. I like bringing different people together, people from different registers I suppose – we have a lot to learn from one another and everyone has something to bring to the table. I like parties where you can introduce strangers to each other and then leave them to it. It’s like clashing two disparate things together in the studio to see what magic happens. There’s often plenty.
Laura Snapes is acting music editor of the Guardian. Born and raised in Cornwall, she started out writing gig reviews for the West Briton and making zines while working at Truro record shop Solo Music, where she met Liam. She has been an editor at NME and Pitchfork, written for British Vogue and the New York Times, and is the author of Liberté Egaltié Phoenix, an oral history of the French pop-rock band published by Rizzoli.