Interview: Billy Childish

Stuart Turnbull

By Stuart Turnbull

on 08.05.13 in Interviews

The English musician, writer, artist and poet Billy Childish has dedicated his life to do-it-yourself independence. He champions the self-taught amateur, the have-a-go enthusiast, the authentic and the anti-authoritarian. He celebrates commercial suicide and derides product-driven creativity. He lived on social security for 15 years but now, in his 50s, earns a decent living selling his art, words and music.

Since forming his first band, TV21, in 1977, Childish has released records by a slew of bands, namely Thee Milkshakes, The Del Monas, Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Headcoats, The Buff Medways, The Chatham Singers, Vermin Poets, The Spartan Dreggs, CTMF and The Musicians of the British Empire. Although he claims to “not work if I can help it,” this prince of immediate creativity has released around 150 albums, published 45 books and produced thousands of drawings, woodcuts and paintings. His latest album, recorded as Wild Billy Chyldish is All Our Forts Are With You, a blistering and vitriolic affirmation of his existence, recorded with the band CTMF.

Childish was born Steven John Hamper in 1959 in Chatham, England, and as an 18-year-old stonemason in Chatham dockyard made the decision to smash his own hand with a hammer in order to avoid a lifetime spent chiselling blocks of stone. He has returned to a difficult childhood in his art: His father was a commercial artist-turned-drug smuggler who Childish once punched down the stairs, and he was sexually abused aged nine by a friend of the family, a man whose photo he later stuck on the sleeve of his 1992 single titled “Pedophile.”

Childish had a relationship with artist Tracey Emin from 1982-86 and she remains a muse: His 2004 novel Sex Crimes of the Futcher was influenced by their time together. In return, Emin has acknowledged Childish’s influence. Her tent installation, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, for Charles Saatchi’s 1997 Sensation exhibition, featured 102 embroidered names — “Billy Childish” was the largest.

Fans include PJ Harvey, Beck, Blur, REM, Kurt Cobain and Jack White, who once appeared on British TV’s Top Of The Pops with “B Childish” scrawled on his arm in pen (they fell out in 2006 after White strangely accused him of plagiarism). Kylie Minogue was so enamoured of one of Childish’s books, Poems to Break the Harts of Impossible Princesses, she named an album after it.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Damaged Goods, the revered punk label that has worked with Childish in all his musical guises since 1990, Stuart Turnbull was invited to interview their most prolific signing at his painting studio above a Victorian rope factory in Chatham dockyard in Kent. (We also have 25 Damaged Goods titles on sale for $4.99 or less.) Childish greeted Turnbull with the words, “Watcha, charvo!” (Local slang for “hello boy”), before donning a brown boiler suit and pair of paint-splattered moccasins to start work on a new 8-foot canvas while holding forth on art, music and, er, yoga.

You can see the painting he produced below. And Billy rifles through eMusic’s vaults to share his favorite albums on Damaged Goods.

Billy Childish's painting

Billy, your musical output is off the scale compared to other artists; you even make The Fall seem sloth-like. Where does your massive drive for self-expression come from?

My idea is that when we make a recording it should have spontaneity and life and not be tortured into some kind of faux perfection. Music is inherently conservative in its attitude to recording, there’s a real hierarchy and snobbishness in it. I ignore that. I’m looking for the song to be elemental and express itself.

This has been misunderstood many times as me not caring and having a throwaway or what they call “lo-fi” attitude. I’ve no interest in being cast stylistically as that. I very much treat music like art, which might sound a bit poncey but actually it’s the opposite — it’s gritty and straightforward.

Do you always record in a studio or do you have a set-up at home?

At home I record ideas on a portable cassette-tape recorder. I put down a couple of chords then write a few lyrics, and then we record the songs in a small studio down the road.

You used to use the strictly analog Toe Rag Studios in London, run by Liam Watson (used by the White Stripes to record Elephant). Is your local studio similarly old school?

It’s partly analog, we use tape. But I’m not against digital per se, as long as you can get enough analog between you and it. A lot of people have come round to that view, but it used to be a real fight for me. The things that we actually fought for have now become their own snob value — analogue recording and old ribbon microphones.

At Toe Rag Studios the main thing was the filth button, a switch on this ancient old mixing desk that Liam had there. You had three tones on it — one noisy, one noisier and the other noisier still. The filth button liked what was happening to it. That’s the great thing about those old valve desks. Old gear likes being agitated; it soothes out agitation as well as agitating. A great combination; it mediates itself.

The whole hum-and-crackle of analog rock ‘n’ roll seems to have become an aspiration of digital music software — computers imitating ancient transistor valve equipment.

The new height of digital technology is to emulate analog technology, whereas the whole point of digital technology, originally, was to eliminate analog. And this shows how perverse humans are, because when they first brought in this digital gear I was told how fantastic it was — that you could hear Ringo’s bass pedal on the Beatles’ such and such track. And everyone was getting rid of their vinyl collections, because everybody’s a sucker for the salesman. They wanna sell you this crap because mugs will buy it — and I’ve refused to join in and be a mug, and that’s why I’ve been cast as an idiot.

You’ve got a 1960s Dansette record player here in your painting studio. Is it in use?

Yeah, there’s nothing in here for aesthetic reasons. Not even the paintings. I’ve had that Dansette for about 35 years. I used to have two but one of them gave up the ghost completely.

So no Bang & Olufsen in a listening room for you?

Well, my older brother had a stereo that my Nan bought for him in 1969, and it was quite thrilling to hear Hendrix and The Beatles on it. But I quickly learned that the stereo system meant that I was only hearing partially what was going on depending what part of the room I was in. I learned that the best way to listen was to put the two speakers together on top of each other so that you could hear it from one place. Two speakers instead of one — it’s just marketing.

How do you maintain an authentic voice when working across different mediums – music, words and painting?

By allowing whatever medium you’re working in to dictate to you, so the work is in charge of you, and you’re not in charge of the work. So you’re eliminating the amount of ego you put into it. I want the music and the records and the paintings to be in charge. When people dictate to the medium they’re working in it becomes worried, anal and clinical, which is what’s happened with rock ‘n’ roll. The whole thing has become homogenized. That doesn’t mean that the music we’ve got in the world isn’t full of immensely talented people, it’s just proof that talent doesn’t amount to much. Talent is nowhere near as valuable as people believe it is. Things like The X-Factor prove that the world is inundated with talent, and it’s not helping.

You were kicked out of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London in 1981. Was that ultimately a good thing?

It was inevitable. They were against me playing music; they were against creativity and expression. Art schools don’t like creative people, because creative people are awkward. The music industry doesn’t like creative people either. In a way our culture abhors creativity, because creativity means you’ve got an awkward person with opinions that might not make the best commercial decision.

You’ve been releasing records on the independent punk label Damaged Goods for 23 years. There’s clearly room for creativity there?

Without Damaged Goods, I would be nothing. All life began with Damaged Goods, and all life will cease with its demise [There are no plans for the label to close — Ed.]. I find it easy to work with Ian [Ballard], who runs the label, because he gets behind my ideas and helps me realize them. There’s no other label that would understand that I’m not interested in the commercial outcome but the fun of the idea: like, releasing two LPs and one for free if you cut coupons off the corners of the sleeves and post them in with a postal order, as we did with The Spartan Dreggs; or the Spartan Dreggs singles club we did; or LPs that have a mysterious third side. Of course, it would be great to receive royalties as well, but you can’t have everything.

Have you ever been approached by a major label?

Although I’m very friendly and easygoing and happy to compromise in many areas, I’m not prepared to in the essential ones — music and painting. And because the world is full of talent, they can get any number of people to do what I do. So why would they bother with a creative person? Commercially, creativity is a nuisance. Unfortunately, they do want to market it as rebellion; that’s where the lie is.

Your new album as Wild Billy Chyldish/CTMF, All Our Forts Are With You, makes numerous references to the punk scene of 1977, in songs such as “36 Years Later” and “The Second Generation Punks.” Are you nostalgic for that time?

No. It’s about yesterday’s sound for tomorrow. That’s our catchphrase. It uses a few lyrics I had from 1976, but it’s completely current to what I’m interested in now. It’s what I’m doing.
I’m also writing a novel, based in 1977, and a friend asked, “Is it very nostalgic?” I said, “Well not with my type of mind” — because my mind is raw and open to things and I remember things in intense detail. There’s no nostalgia because 1977 was a great time — kind of pleasant and unpleasant.

What was it about punk that hooked you in?

It was sex, electrifying your blood stream. I came from a rock ‘n’ roll tradition, I’d been listening to Gene Vincent and Bill Haley; some of us punks were on that rock ‘n’ roll trip. But a lot of punks were really glam rock boys; they’d been through the filter of David Bowie. That’s why punk had this very short hiccup of spontaneous life then lurched back into some kind of ABBA cum Bowie new romanticism.

There’s a track on the new album called “Musical Knaves.” What sort of musicians get your goat?

I’m irritated by over-identification of audiences with the personal drama of a performance. It shows a distinct lack of maturity. A lot of people like faux intensity. On the track “The Musical Knaves,” when I mention Nick Cave — and he seems an okay fellow to me — it’s because he takes the worst aspect of Jim Morrison. Morrison was not a good poet, Jim Morrison was a fantastic crooner and a great pop artist, but people never celebrate what they think is too naive. Nick Cave focuses on the worst aspect of Jim Morrison — the ridiculous, verbose, adolescent imagery of sex and death.

“I Validate Myself” is a rousing rallying cry. Is it something you play loud when you want to give yourself a kick up the rear?

No, I never kick myself up the rear to anything. And I record when I want to. But, strangely, I have rules. My life is incredibly rule bound. I paint on Sundays and I paint on Mondays. I’ve got a very immoderate nature, so to counteract that I insert structures of working and eating.
I haven’t drunk for 20 years; I’ve never been into hard drugs; none of this is moral, this is to do with whether things work. The alcohol I was addicted to but I managed to get myself out of that. And for the last 20 years I’ve been practicing Vedanta yoga, an ancient Indian discipline, the study of truth and knowledge.

Are you self-taught at yoga?

No, none of these things are a good idea to be self-taught at. Everything should be done through tradition, and should be from lineage. You’ve got to have all your bullshit detectors on. As far as all my spiritual endeavours go, lineage is everything, bullshit detectors are everything.

On “I Validate Myself,” you sing, “I don’t need you to approve,” and “I love myself, and don’t ask why.” Really?

What I’m interested in is true statements, and the validation of the self is the truth. Validation comes from the self, but people are always looking for validation from the world or from pop or from art or from the boss or from the wife. I’ve pissed everyone off royally, because I don’t look for validation in music, I don’t look for validation in art, and not looking for validation is incredibly arrogant, and gets people’s backs up. Pronto. I mean, even with this article you’ll have people saying, “That bloke is complete fucking arsehole,” because I’ve just said that I don’t need your validation.

Do you put a lot of anger into your work?

There is a lot of emotional charge, and the reason for music and art is to provide a safe place for emotional charge. And also, for it to be theatre, because theatre is cathartic. When these things are allowed, they’re very healthy. When they’re manufactured, or directed, or have an agenda, the more twisted and out of alignment with their real nature it becomes.

How has your dyslexia contributed to your creativity?

It probably set me up against authority slightly because I found myself being judged unjustly on my intellect and intelligence as a kid, and that probably made me less deferential towards establishment structures imposed by other people.

You are known for dressing in vintage military attire, with Word War One-era facial hair. What’s the fascination with military history?

Well, apart from my lazy fearfulness I’ve got quite a martial nature. When I was 14 I was involved in Roman archaeology and studied the local fortifications. It’s called having interests and projects.

Look, the world supplies everything that you need — you don’t need to have an agenda, the world will give you one. The things that interest you are the things you should do because they’re the things that are reflective of your nature. Your nature expressing itself is the reason why you’ve been born; it’s your duty. Duty is to do your stuff the way you do it.

There’s a track on the new LP titled “Musical Tribalist.” What you mean by that?

My wife said to me that it sounded like it was some world music thing. Of course, it’s the total opposite. It’s a celebration of regionalism and opinion. If you set your own parameter you can flourish within that. What we’ve got now are people who like everything and know nothing. It’s all part of globalization; you know, “I’m a fan of everything,” but that means that you are not then accessing your nature and your passion. [With tribalism] what you are doing is putting a discipline into your life. This is what I do. I’m the world’s worst fan, I don’t bother liking things I don’t need to. I leave that to someone else.

So it’s about celebrating the constraints of taste?

My friend said, “Oh you should listen to Pulp. They’ve got a good sound, they’re sort of realistic…” I said, if there’s 2 million people that like Pulp, then Pulp don’t need me. And he said, “You can’t just decide not to like it.” I said, “I certainly can.”

How did things change after The White Stripes lauded you?

Previous to the garage-rock explosion or whatever you’d call it, we used to play to an audience in North London where I knew 50 percent of the people there. Once the White Stripes came we were playing to larger audiences and we knew 10 percent, because Jack’s input opened things up to the tourists. So he’s like The Sunday Times writing about a fishing village in Cornwall and saying it’s so unspoilt and really nice — and of course that means it becomes the big tourist attraction. The essence of what it was has just been desecrated. So we had that.

Do you try to be obvious and ordinary with your music and painting?

I don’t try. But obvious is okay, and ordinary is okay. I mean “obvious” in the sense that don’t you need great concepts. What you need is to find out what your duty is and find constraints that give freedom. Like with painting. You don’t need to have conceptual art because painting is fantastic constraint that makes you focus where you wouldn’t, whereas conceptual art is fantastic liberation but its only liberation for that day — it doesn’t have any life-giving qualities. So although it can be a great vomit, it can’t be a great meaning. And vomiting is great. I’m not against vomiting. One thing’s vomiting, but the art is shitting, and shitting you need to do all the time.