MOUTHY ISSUE TWO
interview by Ian C Stewart
Michael Bowman is a pathologically creative individual. In addition to painting, drawing, handmaking the packaging for CD releases, running a record label, creating videos, writing lyrics, writing poetry, writing and recording instrumental music and pop songs with catchy choruses, creating websites, making Flash animation, publishing a zine, doing mail art, playing guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, singing, making postcards, fliers, social commentary, photography, and being an MTV star in the 1980s, Bowman is an occasional contributor to Mouthy.
Whoa, hold on a second. I was on MTV for two weeks in 1987. I wouldn't say I was a star. Shit, I was the fucking drummer. But, yeah, Iíve tried everything at least once. Monkey see, monkey do. Itís like when I get Mouthy in the mail, one of the first things that pops into my brain is what the cover of my zine is gonna look like. The sick thing is, I actually carry out a majority of my whims. Itís a sickness really. An obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sometimes I wish I could be one of those people who enjoys relaxing in front of the tube. You donít wanna know. Iíve got a half-finished novel, I recently entertained the notion of going back to school for a major in Political Science, Iíve got a stock photography website in the making, and donít forget the kid I want to raise one day. Please. Sometimes I wish I could focus. Maybe next time around.
The Creative Impulse - what drives you, creatively?
Hmmm. Like I said, much of what I do is impulsive. I see a new medium, or I see someone doing something interesting, and I say ďhey, that looks like fun.Ē Like the Blog I started this year. I mean, how unoriginal. Every wanker in cyberspace has a frickiní blog. But I think everybody has a unique style to bring to whatever they do, and my Blog isnít like any other Blog out there.
But the worldís overriding preoccupation with originality is a dead end street. And I donít think the first thing people are going to think when they hear about the new MJB Blog is ďthat idea lacks originality.Ē
There are theories kicking around the art world since the early twentieth century suggesting that the modern artist is not beholden to one craft or discipline, but is a generic artist, and that art is art. As opposed to being confined to any one specific artistic discipline. Does this mean that the rock musician, formerly an entertainer, is now an artist?
Letís let the interviewer ask the questions here, mmm-kay? You were saying.
If you focus mainly on recording as an art, as opposed to a live show, I argue that the recording is more firmly in the category of an art object. The Beatles and Brian Wilson and the multi-track technology spawned this concept way back forty years ago. So I see my recordings as creations in the same category as my paintings and drawings or my videos.
Do I think that everything I do is art? Um...well...I guess Iím trying sometimes, but mostly Iím goofing around. The weird thing is, the goofing around produces better results.
Dude, if youíre going to ask yourself all the best questions, then what am I doing here? Gene Simmons would have the world believe that every musician, at the heart of it, is just trying to show off for girls. What is your feeling on this subject?
Heís right about live performance. I mean, címon, we can all make rock music at home, the whole reason to drag your butt and all your gear out to a club, and prance around onstage like a madman, is to impress people, right? To impress chicks, if youíre a hetero guy -
Or a lesbian.
- or to impress other guys, if youíre into that, whatever. So I agree with Gene on the live thing, but I also want to believe that every musician has their own personal agenda. KISS is really theatrical. I like the idea of the live rock show being a caveman stomp as much as a kabuki opera. Years from now, nobody will talk about the great KISS recordings.
Because there are none.
Itís all about the live show. When one makes a recording, one is trying to create something more direct, an electronic intimacy. The recording is more like, ďwelcome to my soul.Ē Also, musicians want to impress other musicians, so that's part of it too.
I mean, really: Sex, drugs and rock Ďní roll? Is it really that simple?
Well, Gene would say sex and rock Ďní roll, but no drugs.
Right. What would MJB say?
Sex, drugs and rock Ďní roll? Yeah, if you can afford it. And by that I mean, if your body, as well as your wallet, can afford it. I have a question.
I thought we already covered this. I am Kurt Loder. You are Bruce Springsteen. Come on. Itís not that difficult. Me askie - you answerie. Ö Oh, all right, whatís the question?
Which is more fun? 1.Getting wasted, rocking out and then getting laid? or 2.Wanking around your home studio, wishing you had another six-pack and a real life?
I donít think you really want me to answer that. But youíre more than welcome to.
If I were to search my own motives, Iíd have to say that the desire to be a part of a larger musical discussion is a big motivator. To have zines writing about you, to know that teenage musicians are learning your riffs, ostensibly so that they may rock out and score chicks, to see yourself within the Pantheon of the rock music universe. To have oneís recordings discussed the same way books and movies are discussed.
Wow, fuck. Like, aim high, right?
Having spent more of my adult life in my basement recording studio, my rock experience is less of the Gene Simmons, sex, drugs and rock one, and more like the cryptic artist in his garret. As I said before, more art, less theatre.
Iíll put my accent on now: And how doez zat mek you feel, Mr. Bowman?
Thereís the idea of the musician as scientist, which Iíve often deluded myself into thinking Iím a scientist in a laboratory, experimenting in my basement studio, believing in the alchemy that could turn a Casio and a crappy four-track into musical gold. Not necessarily gold record music, but music that, twenty years on, folks would point to as a starting point, as the seed of a future generationís hit music, as a completely new and radical sound thatíd never been made before.
Like Guided By Voices? Sorry, you said ďfour-trackĒ and ďgold-recordĒ in the same sentence so I started connecting dots.
Okay, you can pinch me now, Iím ready to wake up and do the rest of the interview.
Okay, me too. Are you still active in mail art?
I guess Semper Lofi Recordings is a form of mail art. I have done some real mail art, as the mail art geeks would define it. But most of the time Iím running Semper Lofi Recordings, wherein I do a lot of music trading through the mail. My idea, back in the late 80s, was a simple one. You show me yours and Iíll show you mine.
Iím not showing you anything. Give me my tapes back. I show nothing to anyone who isnít a licensed medical practitioner. Or a midget.
I could get more people to listen to my tapes by trading with other musicians who had their own tapes, than by sending them to record companies who would never even open the packages. When I was in the MTV band, most of our crowds were other musicians. It seems that, if youíre really into music, chances are you're a musician.
If youíre a dude, that is. If youíre a chick and youíre really into music itís because you want to blow a musician.
In the 80s, I was convinced that everyone in New York City was in a band, or had been at one time. It seemed like the best way to go directly to the people who could appreciate my music was by trading with other folks whoíd made a recording. Who needs a music industry?
Apart from Michael Jackson, you mean?
My main beef with American musical culture is that the recorded music industry serves merely as a promotional tool for a bandís live concert career. The paradigm seems to be: Hear the song, buy the CD, see the concert, buy the t-shirt, buy the box-set DVD, then form your own lame band to imitate the people who just took your $200. The problem is, your musical heroes don't give a shit about your music, only your money. Itís a one way street, almost fascist really.
But you could almost argue the necessity of the one way street. I mean, would you honestly want to know what the singer from Creed thinks of your music?
Iíd love to go to a barbecue at his house and see my CD lying in a pile by his boombox. But I wouldnít want it played, in case one of the other Hollywood types said, ďwhat is this shit? Put something good on.Ē
So as a listener, you quit buying the big-label bullshit, right?
Eventually I became radicalized, in that I wouldnít buy any commercially released music. Which is still true, but now itís because Iím broke. No, really, I get much more excited about hearing something that someone recorded in their home or apartment. A recording by a real, live, works-for-a-living, never-gonna-make-it, ugly-as-shit recording by someone who could be your next door neighbor. Someone who will take the time to write you a letter about your music, and youíll do the same. I know it all sounds very Marxist. But itís also like the talk-show era of music. Everybodyís got something to say, everybodyís little fuck-up is worth fifteen minutes of network airtime. Dig my shit. Hey, my life fucking counts too, yíknow. Like mp3.com. Everybody and their brother has a freakiní band and a CD. Keep it cominí.
Iíve always seen home recorded music and commercial music as separate entities. To me, they donít usually have much to do with each other - usually. It's like the Haves and the Have Nots, or Have Nuts, or something.
How do you see this musical Marxism changing as the world continues to become more Internet-friendly? How do you think that will effect things to have MP3s as the medium instead of tapes?
It will make me create a website that has over two hundred MJB tunes. Which Iím doing as we speak, itís called the Songbank. The companion MP3 CD will be called Smoking The Datapipe.
With all of your creative endeavors, what do you bring to the table that differentiates your work from everyone else's?
Maybe itís that Iím under the table? Have you heard those ads on TV for the Elvis impersonator who does todayís hits, as if Elvis did them? I love that shit. I'm smokiní that gimmicky dope.
Iíve never heard of that, no. Sounds like a riot though.
But Iím a sucker for the commercial dope too. Iíll be driving in my car, listening to the local rock-conglomerate radio and totally getting into these new tracks, I have no idea who the fuck it is. But I also love hearing feeble, amateurish, uncool, unslick, real stuff. Thatís what everybodyís got to offer, me included. Itís a good thing weíre not all Madonna or Tony Levin or David Lynch or Gene Simmons. Itís a good thing we can let it all hang out and not have to worry about box office returns. Iím not trying to break new ground, Iím just dishing up the MJB version of everything youíve already experienced. Okay?
Okay, thatís fair. There seems to be a thread or a common mood running throughout your work - where on the surface, everything seems to be quirky, goofy and fun. But if you dig a little deeper, notice the details a little more, you see something much more substantial and mature. Do you agree, and is this intentional?
Manic depression really sucks, yíknow? I mean, I try to be happy, and funny, but then, everything just goes to shit- life seems so hopeless, and violent and evil, right? You'll be forty one day, brother, and lemme tell ya, thereís something that distinctly sucks about it. I always thought it was a good thing to be childlike, or as childlike as one can be when being creative, but a forty year old child has had the time to develop a dark side, which sucks, but itís a fucking fact of life. I have friends in their early forties who stopped listening to new music in the late 80s. I also have thirtysomething friends who donít know who Jimi Hendrix is. I like to think I straddle that gap. Iím the new and improved blend of hippie-punk non-conformity and yuppie-consumerist culture-joy. If you find that what youíre doing is too derivative, or slavish to something that once caught your fancy, thatís when a real artist will go into convulsions, or at least convulse enough to put a twist on their mimicry. Right? And an artist who has problems with their brain chemistry might not be able to completely control what's going down.
Letís talk about A Year In The Mind. What is it, why is it, where is it, who is it, um, how is it.?
The movie is what I call a memory document. I took my DV cam everywhere with me during 2002 and then I chopped the footage I shot into a one hour memory of what I saw, what I did, what I thought. Eventually, the narrator becomes a video ego, or entity unto itself, like the computer HAL in 2001, or like Max Headroom. The memory becomes a reality unto itself. Marcel Proust, anybody?
Having screened the video, I have to say there's no way that I could ever critique something like that. That would be like someone writing a diary and handing it to you when itís done and saying ďgo on, review it.Ē The video is intensely personal, but at the same time engaging to the point that you almost forget you're watching it. Thereís so much going on, just like in your paintings and music - on so many levels at the same time, that it does require repeated viewings in spots.
Thereís no narrative, itís supposed to be like my thoughts are, jumping around, confused, chaotic, banging its knees on the sharp corners.
Here's a question with no beginning and no end: Pop art?
Andy Warhol was the last great artist. I donít know if there will ever be another artist as famous, or as good. That is the era we live in though, which he predicted. No single, iconic talent, but everybody with their fifteen minutes. So heís lumped in with pop art, but he's way more than pop art. Pop art was big in the early 60s. Pop art is dead.
Did you start doing music or visual art first?
Drawing came naturally to me, Iíve made drawings ever since I was a small child. Music was thrust on me by the era of my childhood, the late 60s early 70s, when everybody wanted to be the Beatles. And by my casual but talented piano player of a father, who said that before I could try guitar or drums, I had to learn piano. So, I learned some rudimentary stuff, major and minor chords, a major scale. That was when I was about seven. Later, when I was thirteen, my older sister got a folk guitar and showed me basic chords, enough to play Cat Stevens or a Neil Young song. Then, when I was fifteen, I finally talked my father into buying me a used drum kit for like $25. The rest is history.
Dude, you need some fuckiní hobbies. You donít have enough projects going.
Thatís the whole point of Semper Lofi Recordings and the hometaping scene. Itís not a hobby. ďJust don't call it a demoĒ was a catchphrase of the hometaping movement. Thereís a mindset that says if you work a day job, and your recording canít be found in a record shop, then youíre not a real recording artist, you just have a hobby, youíre an amateur, a loser, sorry, get your crappy, lame, homemade shit out of my face. Van Gogh was an amateur during his life. But who remembers the great artists who were selling all those high priced canvasses in the best Paris salons during the late nineteenth century? Who were the critics, the dealers, the collectors, who decided Van Gogh sucked then? Greatness is not determined by the institutions of the day, in this case a record industry with money stuffed in its ears.
But isnít there also a mindset that rejects consumerist culture and its values outright?
True, but I was referring to the people at the office, the wife, the family, Mom and Dad. They donít get it when it comes to the obscurity trip. Failure is failure to them, not some cool alternative to success.
Where is music headed?
I think the current environment is going to lead to an explosion of live bands, artists who donít see recordings as what the band is all about. The jam bands. Theatrical, improvisational, visual, live experiences that cannot be duplicated on CD or DVD will be where the action is in the future, which is ironic. Itís like the machines have defeated themselves, because consumers are too lazy, greedy or criminal to pay for something that the machine allows them to steal. Which in a long-winded way answers your question, in that I want to get back in a live performance situation. Iíd love to join a band like Henry Cow was, but updated to include hiphop and grunge metal sounds.
Are you a ďfuck the mall, let's go to the corner marketĒ kind of person?
For the most part, Iím against anything that reeks of uninspired, letís-make-a-buck-ism. And that goes for uninspired hometapers too. So, if my house was burning down, and I could either save my collection of homemade Dan Susnara tapes, or my bitchin' Pere Ubu box-set, I hate to tell you which one I'd grab.
That's just - I mean... Really, dude? Fuckiní Susnara? Thatís the most-collectible hometaper you could think of?
Yíknow, I don't own any Mountain Goats or Daniel Johnston tapes, so I got what I got.
Do you prefer to have as many handmade things around as possible? Iím not talking about art either, Iím talking like homemade granola and making your own clothes and shit.
In the 80s, I designed and painted a bunch of pants and shirts to wear onstage. I did that for the Junkbunny show in September of 2002. So, yeah, I am a DIY guy to a certain extent. I like to buy raw ingredients and prepare meals, so Iím just a workaholic, I guess. If something is broken in my house, Iíll try and fix it myself. But I wouldnít live in a teepee and catch my own food, nor am I against going to a pizza joint and pigging out. And for a guy who consumes huge amounts of beer, Iíve never tried to make the stuff.
Would you do an animated cartoon if you were able?
I donít think I could do characters and a narrative, I donít have the discipline to stick with that. Plus, animated features are the work of large committees and Quonset huts full of Korean artists cranking out the next weeksí episode under deadline so the advertisers can censor it before it hits the air. I know this for a fact, my big corporate job in the TV industry exposed me to the machinations of popular consumer culture, and, behind the scenes, itís even lamer than what ends up on TV. So Iíll stick to my little one minute animation experiments. Right now Iíve got about four minutes worth of stuff, eventually Iíll have maybe a thirty minute compilation I can distribute. In a few years. It takes awhile. Itís a great medium, animation, because it allows me to combine music making, drawing and video.
Do you make stuff with an audience in mind, or is it more for yourself?
Thereís an audience for everything Iíve ever done. I try to be the listener who will receive my CD. I always trust my own ears. Which the hundreds of positive write-ups I've received I think bear testament to the fact. Uh, yeah. I'm a harsh critic of everything in the culture, and that includes my own stuff. My video is one hour, which was created from thirty eight hours of video. The pile of paintings, drawings and recordings that got destroyed is as big as the one that saw the light of day. When I was doing my experimental pop music, I was an extremely critical editor, I would listen and listen, and if I thought something sucked, or if I thought a listener would get bored or think it sucked, then the recording got destroyed or shelved. When I moved on to Cloud, which was my version of prog rock, I was still as judicious.
I remember you referring to Cloud as your prog rock project when you started it, and I was expecting to hear some crazy, Crimson-style insanity. But Cloud to me was always more the Syd Barrett kind of freeform, space rock, almost more pop than rock in some cases. I don't see the rampant time changes, flute solos and concept records aspect. Perhaps you can explain it?
Youíre right, Cloud was more like the European prog bands nobodyíd heard of, like PFM, Camel and Caravan. Definitely more pop-prog than prog-rock. Iíd love to be able to pull off something like Hatfield And The North, but letís remember, they were real musicians! But to do something like Yes or King Crimson, shit, itíd take me a hundred years.
Is Cloud toast then?
Cloud is toasty, thatís for sure. But yeah, I think it's a done deal, it was a done deal in 1999.
BOOOOOOO. Cloud was the shit. So what came after Cloud?
When I got back to MJB in 1999, with Feed, I decided to go freeform and let some of the spontaneous, possibly bad, homemade recordings out. I was using the computer and Acid and Cool Edit and Sound Forge as the main instruments, so I wanted the machine to become the editor. I was also collaborating heavily at this point, and was in a band, so I had less time to perfect my output as MJB. In the last three years, Iíve created hundreds of drawings and paintings, collaborated on four CDs: Insect Darts, Eggomatic, Sinecure and F13; and been in two live acts, Junkbunny and Flat Planets. Junkbunny was very specifically a quirky-lofi-pop band, with three minute songs, verse-chorus structures, vocals-piano-guitar-bass-drums, with experimental sensibilities, intentionally geared towards fans of that genre. The thing is, I couldn't stick with it. One gig and I'm ready for something new. How about this: a band that never practices, and improvises noise everytime it plays live, called The Birthday Party.
Hey, good luck with that. Maybe you can start a new band with some of the Neubauten dudes if it doesnít work out.
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