A new exhibition at the ever-excellent J HAMMOND PROJECTS in LONDON celebrates the art and aesthetic of THE BETA BAND. The cult Scottish pioneers burned bright from 1996 to 2004, having adhered only to their own rules in a music industry that never got them and a public that perhaps only really appreciated how good they were when they were gone.
How can anyone that turned down supporting U2 not be hailed as geniuses?
JUSTIN, who curated the show for the J HAMMOND PROJECTS, tells us: "This exhibition isn't about the music of THE BETA BAND, it's about all the brilliant art that surrounded it. Like the handmade flyers stuck up in pub toilets to promote their first gig. And the fantastically surreal videos that never had a hope in hell of getting played on MTV. It's about their art zine, FLOWER PRESS, which ran for three issues and featured artists like JEREMY DELLER. And it's about how the group's scuzzy, non-linear aesthetic continues to influence contemporary artists like HAROON MIRZA."
In an exclusive interview, we chatted to the eminently obliging JOHN MACLEAN from the band. JOHN was a driving force behind the exhibition, having overseen the band’s art direction and been responsible for their videos and album sleeve artwork.
His love of the visual arts has come to the fore post the BETA BAND as an accomplished filmmaker. His debut feature SLOW WEST, which starred MICHAEL FASSBENDER in the lead role, was acclaimed by critics upon its premiere at SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL.
OWL: Along with your own work and ROBIN’S (JONES, BETA BAND DRUMMER), the show features contributions from JEREMY DELLER, CORRINE DAY, HAROON MIRZA, FERGUS PURCELL, ANDREW CRANSTON AND PETER DOIG. That’s a roll call including, among others, a TURNER PRIZE winner, one of the most cited photographers of her generation, and a painter who is one of Europe’s most expensive living artists. That’s not too shabby for a cult band from SCOTLAND…looking back were you aware at the time of being involved with, or at the very least, in some way influencing such great artists?
JM: I was at the Royal College of Art and PETER DOIG was my tutor. I think living in LONDON in the 1990s there was a definite overlap in the music and art scenes. Interesting artists like PETER and JEREMY were interested not just in 'Art' but music and film. I think we got involved together because we were all open to different influences. This was a very different scene from some bands, those in a bubble in CAMDEN drinking with the NME.
OWL: Did you get to know these artists primarily through your time at art school in EDINBURGH, or was it after the band were formed? Can you explain how you either worked with these people or what their connection is with the band?
JM: PETER DOIG was my tutor at Royal College and I used to make him Jungle (drum and bass) tapes. JEREMY was a friend of friends. He came to our gigs and I was a big fan of his work. I was at the Royal College the same year as ANDREW CRANSTON and we got on very well, so he started contributing work to FLOWER PRESS (a fanzine the BETA BAND put out). CORRINE was friends with RICH, our bass player, so it was amazing to work with her. She shot most of our promo material.
HAROON I got to know through my brother DAVE MACLEAN, who’s in DJANGO DJANGO. They were at art school together. FERGUS was going out with a friend of ours and he became good friends with STEVE, so again he was brought into the fold. He did T-shirt designs, but he also came on tour with us, beat-boxed and DJ'd before we played live.
OWL: While obviously the nostalgia the show evokes is part of the appeal, it succeeds in its own right in being about the visuals and aesthetics above and beyond the songs. If certainly doesn’t feel like a glib retrospective where it’s all moody black and white shots of the band. Was that what you and the curator JUSTIN at J HAMMOND PROJECTS set out to do?
JM: Yes. Having gone to art school I was very aware I didn’t want the kind of PR show you see in record shop spaces or PR spaces. I wanted a gallery to show it. I left the curating to JUSTIN as I’m too close to the material and wouldn't know what is interesting to other people, or just interesting to me because I know the story behind it. It’s like an old frying pan - might seem nothing, but it was played on every record on the 3 EPs. JUSTIN did a great job with a pile of junk.
OWL: Were you the band’s chief archivist? Given you were famously (fairly or otherwise) known for being a bit shambolic as a group, how easy/hard was it to locate pieces for the show?
JM: I am an archivist; I collected everything. I had four sketchbooks, you can see them in the show. There’s everything from the very first press mention in 1997 to the ticket for the very last gig. ROBIN and RICH kept a lot of good stuff too.
OWL: Yourself and ROBIN had backgrounds in art when you joined STEVE MASON and GORDON ANDERSON to form the first band line-up – was it always the intention for you to take a hands on approach in terms of creating record sleeves, videos and the overall aesthetic for the group?
JM: Yes. GORDON left the band before we became a 'band'. When we had our first meeting with the record company I think it was just me, ROBIN and RICH, perhaps STEVE DUFFIELD who played bass on CHAMPION VERSIONS. I told the record company that I wanted to do the covers and videos. I hadn't shot a video before or made a record cover, but I was young and confident, so they trusted me.
OWL: Did you consider yourself an art school band, given STEVE and RICHARD didn’t have that type of background? Is that perhaps why the band worked because of the different personalities? And maybe why it didn’t at the end?
JM: You're right it was part of the dynamic that some of us went to art school and some didn't. I would get all conceptual and ideas based with the music, and that would be dragged back by RICH wanting to be rock and roll, or STEVE wanting to concentrate on the emotions of his song writing.
OWL: You followed in a long-tradition of DIY groups. Who were your influences in terms of predecessors who insisted on controlling 100% of all artistic output? I’m guessing wanting to do everything yourself didn’t always sit well with record companies?
JM: I was really into the KLF and VELVET UNDERGROUND'S relationship with ANDY WARHOL. Me and STEVE bonded over the STONE ROSES. Even though their covers weren’t that original, they worked so well, and tied all their releases together. It made you want to collect every record they did because it looked like a set. The record company quickly realised that we were not going to back down and since we set our stall out before we signed the first contract, they were well aware of our intentions. I think there were other things we did which pissed them off more - things to help us be 'bigger' and sell more records - we refused to support U2, we refused our songs on big adverts like GAP and BUDWEISER etc.
OWL: A lot of your work on various album sleeves and liner notes is collage-based. In some ways sampling and mixing is not dissimilar to collaging in that it’s about pulling disparate elements together that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious fits, to ultimately make a cohesive whole. Was the parallel in mixing together eclectic elements both musically and artistically something you were consciously aware of?
JM: Yes I was. My dissertation essay at Royal College was about the relationship between collage in art, film montage in editing and sampling culture in music. I handed it in with a cassette of songs by KLF, DE LA SOUL, etc. It was my main interest, and why I bought a sampler with my student grant and why I could start working with STEVE and ROBIN.
OWL: How much of the art you did was influenced by the music, and vice versa?
JM: I wouldn’t say the art was directly influenced by the music. It all fed in organically. Things that STEVE was interested in that didn’t directly become song lyrics, but had the ‘feeling’ of the lyrics, influenced some of the videos I made. Like the fake moon landing and the history of war (ASSESSMENT video). For a good while the band was a very diplomatic space, so we were all doing album artwork and involved in video ideas. For example I would suggest we did a square painting each, for each side of the double album inner sleeve for HOT SHOTS II.
OWL: Do you have a favourite record sleeve you did?
JM: I think CHAMPION VERSIONS was the strongest graphically, but my fave is 'THE BETA BAND' - the landscape with the stars. And it was printed on great card, so felt like an object. And because it was taken from a Scottish country dance record that is in every Scottish charity shop (JIMMY SHAND - DANCE O'ER THE BORDER).
OWL: Even withstanding the resurgence of vinyl, there’s an argument record sleeve art is a dying craft because music is overwhelmingly consumed digitally. What are your thoughts, and do you feel if the BETA BAND were a new band starting out today your own role would be diminished?
JM: I don’t think so because people still love the object. Album artwork and packaging has become more important. Record companies are putting more money behind the package - heavyweight vinyl, coloured vinyl, deluxe editions and boxsets. I see it with the repackaging of soundtracks by folk at DEATH WATLZ or MONDO.
OWL: You famously turned down numerous requests from huge brands to use your music for adverts. Were bands like KLF influential in terms of your thinking? Given the time again, would you be a little more open to persuasion?
JM: Back then it was uncool to be in ads. I think perhaps APHEX TWIN spoilt that. I remember they did a PIRELLI ad or something, and instantly made it cool to be in an ad. Before that, ads would throw so much money at the bands because it was seen as so uncool. Then after it, record companies were actually paying ad agents to use the music. Nowadays it’s kind of evened out. If you want to be a band that can afford to record in studios and tour with decent production, you can’t say no to ads. It’s not the fault of the band, it’s the fault of people that download music illegally or online music companies that don’t pay the musicians enough – Spotify, YouTube etc.
OWL: I read in another interview how you personally struggled sometimes in the studio because you didn’t have the best ear for it, and preferred the visual side of it all. Did you envisage being in a band forever when in the midst of it all, or did you think the visual arts would eventually lure you back?
JM: I knew films would lure me, but not being a visual artist on my own in a studio. I felt I didn’t have the source material to be an original visual artist, and I liked cinema too much. Not just the visual side of it, but the storytelling. Making audiences feel something: scared, happy, sad etc. And with film I could bring in all the other interests, music and art. I did have an ear for music in the sense that I knew what sounded good and what sounded bad, I just didn’t have the technical expertise. I didn’t understand hi-end production really, and wasn’t a good enough piano player to ever session or be in any other band.
OWL: How much of a hands-on education did you get when doing the band’s videos, with regards the filmmaking you’re doing now?
JM: That was my film school. Learning to make films without money, without 'great' actors (me and the rest of the band). I had to learn how to storyboard, how to edit, how to tell a story quickly and without dialogue.
OWL: Were you always a film-buff growing up? What type of films were you into?
JM: I kind of was but didn’t realise it at the time. I loved action films, DIE HARD, PREDATOR, ROBOCOP. I didn’t think that was me being a film-buff because they weren’t European art house cinema, but now I know I was. Those films were so well constructed, the scripts near perfect. When I was at Edinburgh art school I worked in the CAMEO cinema doing the late night double bills. Seeing films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST on the big screen for the first time blew my mind!
OWL: I’d imagine going from filming your mates arsing around on camera to directing MICHAEL FASSBENDER is quite the leap? How did you come to be working with such a high-profile actor?
JM: That was a leap. He was the first proper actor I ever worked with - quite a jump. I met his agent though a friend and he showed MICHAEL the daft BETA BAND videos. MICHAEL saw something in them that no one else in the film industry did (I'd been knocking on doors for years), and he gave me a day to do something together.
OWL: SLOW WEST was the first feature film you made after a couple of shorts with MICHAEL. You seem a self-effacing guy, but has the widespread critical acclaim it received convinced you that you’re now a bona fide filmmaker?
JM: Yes, I always knew I could be a filmmaker. It took me a while to say I was a writer. Having been a bit of a failure in English at school and being late in the day to start reading seriously, and not loving the song writing process, I just presumed I wasn’t a writer. Now after SLOW WEST I think I can call myself a writer/director. It was actually TARANTINO coming to talk at the CAMEO with RESERVOIR DOGS that made me think maybe I could do this. He liked the films I liked!
OWL: There’s a JIM JARMUSCH kind of pace to SLOW WEST, is he a director you admire? Stylistically, can you see yourself continuing in the same vein with your next projects?
JM: I admire him, especially his more genre films DEAD MAN and DOWN BY LAW. I really like directors that think visually, but only to serve the story. So it comes out as tension and drama, and not pretty pictures. BRESSON, KUROSAWA, SCORSESE AND SPIELBERG all do it.
OWL: You write the scripts yourself, do you think you’ve learnt anything from the various writers you’ve worked with musically?
JM: I don’t think so. Being a dog walker or a surgeon has more in common with screenwriting than songwriting does. Songwriting is poetry; screenwriting is architectural plans.
OWL: Has being a performer yourself and being aware of group dynamics in a band, helped as a director, in terms of knowing when and how to push your actors?
JM: Yes, perhaps in having worked with people that feel pressure in different ways. Some people snap, shout, rage and blame, some people hide and panic. Especially when you are in a live band, the pressure is there to perform. I learnt that every one deals with stress differently and I must adapt to make people feel at ease depending on the individual's needs.
OWL: Over your working life you’ve worked as artist, musician and filmmaker. Which of the disciplines do you most feel comfortable in? Would you consider doing a film score yourself?
JM: I wouldn't do a film score. Some things are best left to people that have chosen that as their life-long passion. The beauty of filmmaking is working with a costume designer who was born to design, a composer who was born to compose etc. I would write a song (as I did in SLOW WEST) that only I could write, because the lyrics fit in with the theme of the film or tell a story about a character. I feel most comfortable in film because of the collaborative aspect of it.
OWL: Thanks for your time, and finally, no interview about the BETA BAND would be complete without asking about the possibility of a reunion…?
JM: Sadly, it looks unlikely!
Zeros to Heroes: The Beta Band Archive, Curated by Justin Hammond.
Until 3 Nov at J HAMMOND PROJECTS - www.jhammondprojects.com