In August we previewed the latest in a line of excellent exhibitions at Havill and Travis in Harborne: #POP!; an exhibition of work by the artist and prolific songwriter, composer & lyricist Brian Travers – founder member, brass & string arranger and saxophonist with UB40. John Kennedy describes the opening and his interview with Brian:
In early August I received an invitation from Havill & Travis gallery, Harborne, to attend the opening night’s debut exhibition of Brian Travers’ Fine Art entitled #POP!. Of course, Brian’s reputation as founding member of the legendary UB40 needs no explanation – but as an emerging artist given the platform to show his latest works? The opportunity was irresistible. I submitted a series of email questions to H&T with the hope that Brian might want to respond with some thoughts about his work. He immediately came back to me bubbling with enthusiastic beans asking how much did I want? Brevity, or War & Peace? How long’s a piece of string? Very long, he replied when you’re touring Europe by coach and some gigs are twenty hours apart! Game on! I suggested to Brian he might want to bounce me emails as work in progress – road-trip travelogue musings and reflections so to speak. And, he could hum a Rock-Steady cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’ as they girdled the Alps. And didn’t he just keep to his word. So, ladies and gentleman – Brum Live proudly gives to you – Birmingham’s very own on-tour Reggae raconteur, Ska-Face, with his horn of plenty – the Papa of Parpp – Mr. Brian Travers.
Brum Live. Hi Brian, thanks for taking time out to chat with us. You must be a very busy man these days touring the UK and Europe with the band, recording and preparing for your debut solo show #POP! at Havill & Travis this September? (Don’t want to dwell on the Band side of things but this December’s 02 Academy gig with Steel Pulse is going to be an utter blaster!)
BT. Greetings Brum Live. As we (UB40) leave our hotel in Vienna, that overlooks the very blue Danube, for tonight’s headlining show at The Uprising Reggae Festival in Slovakia, I’ve finally got a window in our schedule so I can talk with you guys at BL. It’s been a ‘busy’ week, starting in Birmingham on Tuesday 18th August with a twenty hour bus ride to Lausanne, Switzerland. We prefer to travel by tour bus whenever possible, watching movies, making fun of each other, telling outrageous lies, drinking beer and sleeping in our bunks, rather than endless queuing in airports.
In Lausanne, after two hours asleep, we are headlined The Venoge festival Bithen 32027 and border cross to Slovakia another overnight thirteen-hour bus ride to our sold out gig in Vienna last night. Thankfully, it’s incredibly busy, always has been, thirty-six ‘fun filled’ years of non-stop busy, (although it’s flown past and feels like ten minutes ago). Truth is, in music, if you are not busy, then its not working.
BL. (ps. Brian was updating all this on his mobile and copiously apologised for any typos – the least we were expecting were the road-crew to nick his ‘phone and send some mooning-shots when he was asleep.)
I’m pretty sure it would never have worked if UB40 were not an enthusiastic touring band of brothers. We have been on the road almost every year since we had our first hit ‘Food for Thought’. It hit the top 5 for six to eight weeks in 1979/1980, and it’s on stage where we feel most at home now.
There’s a lot of us, nine in the band, thirteen in the crew, which includes our manager, stage crew, drivers, wardrobe mistress, tour & production managers. A right proper multitude of mouths to feed so ‘non stop busy’ is essential. I use my down time back in Birmingham just as voraciously, painting everyday if possible. Especially these last seven months, having been given the opportunity to paint a complete one man show by Gerv Havill & Dave Travis. Our Birmingham and London dates in December with Steel Pulse will be the icing on the Christmas cake, celebrating another very busy year.
BL. You attended Moseley Art School, (actually in Balsall Heath, now sadly long closed). What do you remember of those years? Did they define your creative directions? Was it a hotbed of anarchic mayhem with you in the vanguard? Anything printable would be fun to hear about…
BT. As UB40 was formed by a bunch of friends who all met as innocent eleven year olds at The Moseley Road School of Art – it’s a place and a time that travels with us where ever we go. It was an incredible school, and we now count ourselves as incredibly privileged to have attended. Of course we didn’t understand that back then, we were simply happy to be music mad, girl mad, fashion conscious, under-aged cigarette smoking teenaged Brummies.
Surprisingly, we never had music classes at school, an art school and music wasn’t on the curriculum? Music, the most abstract of all the art forms. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but it touches us in the most soulful way. I suppose like all teenagers we wanted what we didn’t have available to us so it probably fuelled our passion for music. In 1975 upon leaving school at sixteen years old we planned to regroup imminently with instruments and become Balsall Heath’s answer to The Jackson Five. I should say that many musicians came out of the ‘art school that didn’t teach music’ Andy Wickett, who formed Duran Duran whilst at the school, writing Girls on Film, was in the year below us, Eamon Duffy from The Prefects/ Nightingales in the same class to name but two. I’m pretty sure our time there taught us how to believe in the power of self expression, even if we didn’t quite know what that actually meant till a few years later.
BL. Your intriguing press release mentions that this is your ‘latest’ work. You’ve a two generation, maybe even three, fan base and many will be surprised, never mind impressed, to hear of your visual artistry. Take us on a trip down memory lane on your magic flying palette.
BT. From the very beginning UB40 were determined to be the masters of our own destiny. Being as independent as possible, recording in our own studios for our own label. Heading our own art department, we planned with almost military precision our album covers. “Signing Off”, our first album using a 12″ square copy of The Dole Card of the time (Unemployment Benefit 40) from which we had taken our name. I directed many of UB40’s videos, which back in 1981 was a brand new record industry sales initiative. No rules established yet, just an alternative avenue for expression with in the business of promoting music. Shooting over twenty videos for singles, as well as four long form 90-100 minute films, a live concert film and documentary in 1986 pre Glasnost, pre Perestroika USSR. Shot over twenty nights, ten in Moscow and ten in Leningrad it was a very different experience to touring Europe and the Americas.
Working in partnership with my great friend and mentor, the late Chips Chipperfield at EMI, we set up PMI (Picture Music International) EMI’s video division in the 80’s, in turn giving me the opportunity to direct over thirty videos for other acts, Freddie McGregor, Hot Chocolate, The Skids, Richard Jobson, Belouis Some and Yazz, to name a few. At the same time, this gave me the opening and introduction to young filmmakers to help UB40 realize our vision. I found a young Bernard Rose still at Buckingham Film school and employed him on his first professional job directing my script ‘Labour of Love’ UB40’s first long form film, a black & white tale of love and hate in Thatcher’s early 1980’s Birmingham.
Bernard went on to a Hollywood career directing Dearly Beloved (Ludwig van Beethoven biopic), Candy Man, Ivan X . I bought art shows from young painters to use as album, 12″& 7″ vinyl covers, Steve Masterson, Barry Kamen (brother of the 1980’s Levis ad heart throb Nick Kamen). Gillian Lever, now residing back in Kings Heath after some years in the country and Birmingham’s own photographic experimental artist, Max Kandola, establishing them as young international painters on the way up.
Art has always figured high on our list of priorities on the basis that we wanted our recordings to be wrapped in something that was meant to be looked at – not just sold by the yard to the lowest common denominator. The 12″ album was a big piece of real estate sat on a shelf in your home, on view everyday and something we believed should be treated with the same respect as the record. Doesn’t everyone mourn the demise of the album cover that you could look at a thousand times, searching for cryptic clues about the record inside? All through these times I drew and painted, even the occasional UB40 album cover, giving canvases to fund-raising charities, fans, friends and family, but always with the intention of one day, when time allowed, finding myself through the paint.
The twenty years I spent producing and directing film kept my love of visual expression in the forefront of my mind and for the last ten years my time spent painting with a view to becoming a ‘real’ painter has become essential to my time spent making music. Making marks on canvas is a very private, solitary, almost meditational exercise, just me and the freedom to paint. Funnily enough, while in the art studio (a grubby maisonette in Cotteridge) looking at the marks I’ve made, my mind wanders into the recording studio and new melodies, lyrics and arrangements have the freedom to stick like a worm in my ear. (Yes Brian, interesting metaphor – how many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? A fish.)
And, if the next day I’m still singing the line, still remembering the as yet unrecorded hooks, then I yearn to get them recorded on the basis that they are maybe OK. I believe if I can’t remember the tune how is anyone else expected to? It’s something Paul McCartney said to me thirty years ago (the best piece of music composition advice I’ve ever received to be honest) in Air Studios, Oxford St, London. He played us (UB40) some stuff he had recorded with Stevie Wonder and I said, ‘Good demo’s Macca, when you doing the real thing?’ Just pulling his leg of course. He replied, ‘I never make demo’s, if I can’t remember the tune how is anyone else supposed to!’ Which shut me up good and proper!’ George Martin sat at the mixing console, just smiled and asked, ‘Can you remember the chorus from the last tune?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied and hummed it back. I do think that Music (the most abstract of all the arts) and abstract painting are just brothers from a different mother…if y’get where I’m coming from?
Anyway…the tour bus has just arrived at The UPRISING ‘Reggae’ Festival Bratislava, Slovakia…Anthony B (our mate from The ‘Oracabessa’ Dance Hall album recorded in JA) is on stage having a ball with the very Reggae Slovakian dreadlocked audience, we are on at 11:00 pm, I’ll be back to the interview after our show when we hit the road for the four-hour journey to Buchlovice (yes, he’s right!) In the Czech Republic.
BL. We’re fascinated by your concise show title #POP! It sort of jumps out doesn’t it? And prefixed with the now ubiquitous hashtag. Your thinking?
BT. I simply wanted a working title as I was going to paint a complete show, a title and a specific primary colour palette (Marvel/DC comic print colours) gave me a discipline so that the show would work as ‘a show’ rather than a collection of different ideas. I’m a big supporter of street art and the artists involved who are branded criminal but passionately refuse to surrender. I wanted to paint an abstract show for the comic book generation, a playful, bright show of paintings that would jump off the wall, pop out of the canvas so to speak. It would appear that there is the hint of a zeitgeist right now around the Pop art movement. Watching BBC 4 last week an advert said – ‘Coming soon -The history of POP ART!’ Looks like I guessed lucky, it would appear that there is something in the air, also it’s a nod, a tip of the hat to the original ‘POP! ‘stars of 1960’s NYC, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, Edward Hopper, James Gill, Robert Indiana and the 21st century street writers / painters who I believe are the illegitimate children of NYC’s 1960’s Pop Art movement.
BL. This association with Havill & Travis, they’re relatively new kids on the block as far as exhibitors go but their history as local promoters and Festival impresarios is legendary. And you a die-hard Kings Heath/Moseley man again. A bit of benign Brummie nepotism going on here maybe? Who first picked-up the phone?
BT. I received a call from Gerv Havill in December 2014 asking would I be interested exhibiting some work. I’ve known Gerv for a few years now and I’ve always appreciated his laid back studious manner. We met up in January 2015 and that’s when I met Dave Travis for what I thought was the first time. Then he reminded me that we actually met thirty-five years previously when he photographed UB40 at Trent Poly before a gig. I believe it’s a natural progression for both the guys to move into the promotion of art & artists – considering how good they are at putting ‘bums on seats’ for their live events, both being very proactive when it comes to getting the information out there. In turn, I have spent all my adult life in music and around promoters, without whom musicians would find it hard to earn a living, so we speak the same language.
Of course, it was a no brainer for me; the offer to paint a one-man show was music to my ears. Although I paint regularly it would be naive of me to independently paint a show and then try to find a gallery willing to commit to an exhibition. H&T’s enthusiasm and confident energy gave me the impetus to push really hard into the work knowing that come September 17th 2015 I needed to have filled the space at their Lonsdale Road gallery. All through the following eight months we met regularly to discuss ideas, new initiatives and drink copious amounts of wine. Their support in turn gave me the confidence to dig deep into the work whilst keeping in the forefront of my mind the need to remember that once the work is hung I’ve effectively fired my last shot as far as #POP! is concerned.
After all, the abstract exists purely to provoke thought in the viewer or listener, that’s not saying it’s easy for the viewer. The abstract makes demands on your sense of reason but I’ve tried to keep it playful, tried to make it easier for the viewer to accept my deconstructed themes without compromising the original concept -‘abstract art for the comic book generation’. I’ve started painting on Perspex in an attempt to use natural sunlight or LED light as an element in the painting, Using clear Perspex and glass to make use of that ‘bit of wall/ window/ bathroom tile behind the canvas’. I’ve been painting ceramic vases, pots, glass-wear, a working Absinthe iced- water drip (the original 1900’s Parisian absinthe technique) erotic glass pieces, teapots.
There was a degree of trial and error, some failures but also lots of serendipitous success. Both Dave & Gerv have been incredibly supportive, from sourcing materials, being open to idea’s that may have seemed confusing at the time but giving me a green light to push on whilst planning the show down to the last square inch of space in their white room.
BL. So, are you calling it a show, an exhibition or to Hell with formality and just let #POP! And the works speak for themselves?
BT. I hoping that #POP! Will speak for itself, I find the words can get in the way sometimes, it’s simply a playful contemporary art show, the end result of nine months of painting, an opportunity for me to have a conversation with the public and hopefully learn something from the feedback – everyday is a school day.
BL. So, insanely busy and productively creative, we will have to wait and pass judgment on the opening night. However, we can already safely deduce from this, 1 – you have a very understanding family and 2 – a bloody big studio!
BT. It’s all true! I’ve been painting on canvas; sheet steel, sheet Perspex, clear, frosted and solid opaque Perspex. Casting plaster of Paris for multiple, repetitive images mounted in frames, repetition plays a big part #POP! I’m experimenting with window abstracts, paintings on clear, unframed Perspex that attach onto glass using double-sided suckers. Paintings to sit over frosted glass toilet and bathroom windows, utilising the natural sunlight that is diffused by the frosted glass. Paintings to display on kitchen cupboards and fridge- freezers. Window paintings that can be used to block an exterior view but not block the available light, that also attaches to glass in the same way. Big celebration of colour paintings for the ubiquitous open plan white-walled kitchen diner.
I’ve been hunting through charity shops for unwanted, unloved, geometric shaped ceramics, glass vases, anything that inspires me at that precise moment and then using them as canvas. I’m not sure they will be dishwasher safe, but I’ve used enamel paint and glazed the finish. All this has stirred a desire in me to get into a ceramics studio and create my own ‘geometric’ pieces and of course make the move into sculpture. I’m currently planning a show of public street art, large Totem poles celebrating British youth culture. Impossible to make at present as I’m painting in a run down (SERIOUSLY Paint splattered) maisonette above a greasy-spoon cafe in Cotteridge, not ideal but it’s private, away from the hustle & bustle of Balsall Heath, Moseley and Kings Heath with no distractions except my own imagination. Studio space with 24-hour access is essential and something I’m desperately looking for in the Moseley, Kings Heath area. If I am to make the move into ‘ Imagineering’ large (IMMENSE) pieces, then I need a place with BIG doors, high ceilings and access for vehicles.
BL. Have you had a chance to read Grayson Perry’s recent ‘Playing To The Gallery’? It pricks the bubble of pompous ‘art critique’ but is also a handy guide to furthering understanding and enjoying Art. And very funny. Ought to be on any Creative syllabus.
BT. No…not yet, its on the list of course, whilst painting #POP! In between UB40 international tours and local gigs with five other bands, I’ve neglected the written word. As you may have gathered I’m a big fan of Grayson Perry the man and his works, which in turn have inspired me to try creating some ceramic pieces for #POP!
BL. So finally Brian, this canvas is yours for ‘signing-off’ (see what we did there?) if you wish…many thanks and good luck with the ‘show’ and other projects.
BT. Thanks BL – It’s been a pleasure having the opportunity to talk about #POP! Whilst travelling through Europe – a warmly welcomed cerebral distraction from the ferocious amount of sex, drugs and diabolical rock ‘n’ roll debauchery (with erotic tableware or just a knob of butter, Brian?). We started our conversation in Switzerland, talked all the way to Vienna, Austria, resumed it in Slovakia, picked it back up in The Czech Republic and finished it off here in Germany.
So there we have it – The Life Of Brian. Maybe he’s not the Messiah but he’s a very clever boy. And an utter gentleman to boot. WANTED: premises for garrulous, gifted geezer – equivalent of Warhol’s ‘Factory’ would be handy. Kings Heath/Moseley area – immediate. Anyone?
Go to this link and take a chance at winning an original Brian Travers’ painting. BL disclaimer – warning, answer may contain monkey-parts
Interview: John Kennedy