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Publication: Marmalade, June 2004

Bill Drummond: How (Not) To Be An Artist

At the age of 50 Bill Drummond may come across like the universal man in the shed, but if Britain is serious about considering itself a thrusting nexus of 21st-century creativity and artistic endeavour, his likeness should already be on a plinth in the middle of Hoxton Square bearing the inscription ‘Everything Is Possible’.

He has a thinking man’s hairstyle - ignored, vaguely thinning, hinting at grey and framing a brow full of thoughts, concepts and strategies. Extremely tall, he wears glasses and the look of a rambler: a worn Karrimor rucksack, green moleskin trousers, muddy boots and a battered leather three quarter-length coat.

Bill Drummond thinks extremely hard before he says anything, but he talks warmly and generously, grazing on a tuna salad and swigging tea. A lettuce leafs hang from his horizontal fork as his gaze fixes on the something through the other side of the window. Bill Drummond has been lost in thought ever since he bought The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ on the cusp of his teenage years, which he found ‘phenomenal.’

‘You don’t wait to be given permission,’ he says in a gentle Scots burr, smiling. ‘I suppose I have always felt that everything is possible, and if everything is possible, then you are responsible for everything that is wrong. That’s the downside of it: you cannot blame anybody else. But I just think it’s the best approach to life - to believe.’

Creation Records’ Alan McGee, like many others, termed him ‘a genius’, someone whose turnover of ideas and vision has been matched only by the energy of their application. His 50 years map a life as band manager, anti-popstar behind The KLF, author, artist, activist, riddler, construction plant boss and farmer. Making fact that reads like fiction (for example, that The KLF - absurd concepts bolted onto brilliant songs - where once Britain’s biggest music export) and fiction that’s as plausible as fact, it is a yarn that’s as a captivating to read going backwards in time as it is to read from the past forwards.

In 2002 he published ‘How To Be An Artist’, which poked fun at his own ongoing art projects at the same time as suggesting artistry was something anyone is capable of, a work of inspiration smokescreened as irrelevance by the same profound self-effacement he brings to this interview. His book ‘45’ from 2000 compiled memoire, psychogeography, travelogue, chronicle, fantasy and fact-asy of 45 years of the type of adventures in productive insanity that anyone can read about in books, very few can write and almost no-one actually live.

By the time Drummond and Jimmy Cauty chucked it in, The KLF had scored five consecutive Top Five UK hits and two Number One records. Prior to which in 1988 they published their instructional 'The Manual - How to Have A Number One The Easy Way - Or Your Money Back’, a supreme demystification of the process of pop music, fame and money in the post-industrial age. Swiss pop duo Eidelweiss followed it to the letter, achieving their own Number One record, the 2 million-selling ‘Give Me Eidelweiss’. The KLF were ‘nutty popstars’ (© all tabloids) and ‘postmodern neo-stituationist pranksters’ (Frieze magazine) simultaneously, who invented stadium house, ambient house and trance, got Dolly Parton singing on an acid house record and in ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ produced the only pop song ever to include the word 'furthermore' in its lyrics.

Whether or not they burned a million quid on the Isle of Jura, it was the most newsworthy cultural statement of the Nineties, combining high art and low pop  in a way that other contemporary figureheads including Damien, Noel, Damon and Jarvis hadn’t even begun to dream of. Prior to any of which Bill Drummond managed Echo & the Bunnymen for years, caught pleurisy and pneumonia, and renounced his vocation as a fine artist and jacked art school in. Which is where it all began.

Today Drummond lives with his partner and children on farm near Aylesbury. He’s says he’s left the world of pop culture and music behind, just as he turned his back on the art world at the end of his teens.

‘I’m 50 now,’ he tells me. ‘There’s no way someone my age should be interested in pop music. It’d be almost obscene! Where I live no-one’s got a fucking clue. Maybe some of the mothers who take the kids to school, y’know, “Tiger’s dad used to be in a pop group”. If they were to actually see what I do, it becomes a problem. Yesterday we had a couple of parents round - he does conveyancing – and there’s no way I would want to start talking about it or would would want him to read 45. So it all just exists in my head.’

But as a sage for a can-do creative underground marginalised by the cult of art-as-celebrity and a consumerist orthodoxy that supposes meaning isn’t something you create but something you purchase across a counter, his influence continues to be felt. He champions a raw type of creativity unfraid to wear cowshit on it boots. But his capacity to inpire and lead by example is counterbalanced by a relutance to teach, or even to be thought of as having something worthwhile to impart.

‘I don’t think of myelf as a teacher or an explainer,’ he decides. ‘Usually it’s for me to try and understand things that I write them. Doing a whole wide range of music stuff, and I learn a fuck of a lot of stuff from a lot of different angles. I saw how things worked. [Writing] is me seeing if it does work. I wouldn’t know myself if there was an agenda. Sometime I look back and think, “I’ve worked this out now”. More often it means that I’ve got something out of my system. I don’t have to carry round the baggage anymore. it’s created more space in my head.’

His successes have been a big as the osbcurity in which he’s surrounded himself, an obscurity which he’s nurturing ever more as he evolves his public persona into a farm-living tinkerer in art. “A downbeat person… not a sociable person… not someone that goes to parties,' is how he describes himself, before tailing off and staring out of the window again, the cogs whirring anew.

There remains a vast sense of ambiguity at the centre of whatever he does. You couldn't look at The KLF's era-defining career in the light of The Manual - written as a postcript to their first Number One, ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ - without suspecting that the entire project was a joke at the record-buying public's expense, more art than pop or commerce. He insists, it wasn't: 'We were trying to make the best record we could make and present them in the most interesting way. We’re weren’t cynical.’

Nor is it possible to experience projects like, A Smell of Money Undergound or Silent Protest, and fully agree with his view, expounded extensively in 45, that he isn't an artist. He has compared his drive to prove himself the opposite of an artist as like 'climbing Everest in an protest to altitudinism'. He says he's is still a romantic and wanted to be Rembrandt, 'And I was shit. So I've never ever felt good at anything at an art level. I've never felt secure in my ability to do things. I’m able to get whatever it is out of me, but I'm still faced on a daily basis that I’m not very good at it. Only the last couple of years I've got myself focused and motivated. I only now feel like I’m finished off my art-school course.

‘Would I consider myself an artist? I do now, and it’s taken me a long time to accept,' he says. I was informed by the histroy of art, I read a ton of stuff. I know that my whole approach to basically everthing really is from a fine art education. And I can’t deny that. The trouble is that I was always in denial, and I can’t deny it any more. Maybe it was better than I was in denial…’

Or maybe it isn’t, although the pop world is unlikely to hear anything as hair-raisingly thrilling as ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ from Drummond again. Either way, at 50 he’s reached a turning point, embracing art by rejecting the pop he embraced in order to reject art in the first place. And  the drive to do stuff, make things, complete projects and Get Stuff Done is fierce.

Later this year, The Wild Highway, the second part of the trilogy that began with Bad Wisdom is published, an account of his and Mark ‘Zodiac Mindwarp’  Manning journey up the Congo to track down the Devil and demand their souls back, since they’d ‘obviously sold them to Satan at some point - but we can’t remember when’. The next project is ‘Score’, a conceptual poster format project that evolved out of his interest in choral music. ‘Score’ is ‘just an instruction. It’s created for people to create music, not to be consumed. It exists for the putting of it together, a completely different way of viewing music as something the music industry are trying to market.’

Do you see what he did there? Drummond can’t help but enable others to create. Or is ‘Score’ merely a tool to perpetuate his personal mystique and notoriety? You could cut the ambiguity with a very blunt knife indeed. Drummond has never made any bones about his own self-mythologising. If he has perfected the art of lying - as his friend the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair suggests in ‘London Orbital’ - then his lies are too compelling, too interesting to disbelieve. He lies in order to tell the truth.

But in any case, Drummond says he’d rather be remembered for other things.

‘I know a lot of the time, I’m thinking, I hope I’d get this finished before I die. I’m not worried about my own death. But I’d be pissed off! There’s certain things I’d like to get done, and that motivates me quite a bit. I feel I’m very likely to get killed at any point in time. So I suppose I’d like to be rembered as someone who got things done.’

The anti-artist in spite of himself, Bill Drummond is the How-To man who Got Things Done. He is Getting Things Done. Everything remains possible.

The Manual is at

© Kevin Braddock 2004

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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