Billy Childish does more in a year than you’ll do in a lifetime.
That may sound like an insult, but it actually says more about Childish than it does you. For close to five decades, he’s been so hyper-productive that it’s bordered on obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s recorded hundreds of albums (with bands like Thee Milkshakes, Pop Rivets, The Buff Medways, and a half-dozen others), published five novels and 40 volumes of poetry, and produced literally thousands of paintings. Now 53, the art world’s crankiest polymath has shown no sign of slowing down. He has a new exhibit of paintings opening at the International Art Objects Galleries (6086 Comey Avenue in Los Angeles) on February 23rd, followed by upcoming shows in New York and Berlin. And he continues to make music, putting out “four LPs last year,” he told me, “and I just recorded another one. I hate it all, but luckily making records doesn’t take very long.”
It’s just one of the many mysteries of Billy Childish (née Steven Hamper): Why does somebody so openly hostile towards art make so much of it? The Observer didn’t call him “a seething, dyslexic, better-looking British Bukowski” just because it made good copy. From the moment Childish decided to devote his life to art—which, by his account, happened when he was 18 and working as an apprentice stone mason at a dockyard in Kent, England, and for some reason smashed his hand with hammer on purpose—he’s seemingly enjoyed being an enigma who may or may not have a master plan other than pissing off as many people as possible. Over the years he’s had many famous admirers (Beck, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey, Michael Stipe, Graham Coxon, director Larry Clark) and a growing number of admirers-turned-despisers (Jack White and ex Tracey Emin). Even since 2010, when his exhibitions at London’s ICA and New York’s White Columns transformed him from an underground cult icon into an international art superstar, he hasn’t lost any of his eagerness to provoke. He still has strong opinions about the various creative genres he’s devoted most of his life to, and they’re still less than flattering.
I called Childish at the studio/gallery L-13 in London. He was charmingly bawdy and self-deprecating in the way only British people can be, or maybe used to be and aren’t anymore, depending on whether you believe Childish.
I feel like we should start by discussing your moustache.
When I hear the name Billy Childish, it’s the first thing I think of. Is that why you grew it, to create your own Salvidore Dali-esque facial hair identity?
I always had a liking of moustaches. When I was a young lad, 10 or 11, I used to do self-portraits of myself with a moustache. And when I was in my early teens, about 13, I bought some fake moustaches and would wear them sometimes.
Did you just like the way your face looked with a moustache?
I suppose so. Honestly, I don’t know what it was about. When I was 30, I suddenly realized that I could grow a moustache, so I’d grow one for the winter months. Some time during the mid-90s, I didn’t shave it off after the winter. But I would almost prefer having a fake one in my pocket, so I could have it or not, depending on my mood.
In an open letter you wrote to Jack White, you claimed to have “a bigger collection of hats, a better moustache, a more blistering guitar sound and a fully developed sense of humor.” The last three I knew about, but please tell me about your hats.
It’s the same as the moustaches. I’ve just always been interested in hats. I have all manner of hats in my collection. I like a very large Basque Beret. And I like the fedora style. They’re my two favorites.
Do you have special hats for special occasions?
Not really. I don’t know what hat I have on usually.
You don’t? How is that possible?
I put a hat on in the morning and then I forget about it. It’s the same as a moustache, I don’t think about it a lot of the time. If I catch sight of myself in a shop window, I’m usually horrified by what a mad person I look like.
That could be a good thing.
Perhaps. But it’s not so nice for the mad person to find out that they’re mad.
So it’s not your intention?
There’s no real premeditation, surprisingly. It’s a natural occurrence with me. It’s the way god made me. And I’m as surprised as other people sometimes.
Wearing an over-sized beret might be a little eccentric, but does it really make you look like a crazy person?
It depends on the context. I was one of the only punk rockers in 77 who wore a hat and shorts in the summertime. It seemed odd because punk rockers didn’t wear shorts and they didn’t wear hats. When I was a punk rocker, I used to get shouted at by people on the street. And when I was in my 40s, I got shouted at by art students. Which I thought was a real mark of achievement. Not only was I expelled from the St Martins School of Art, art students actually shouted at me in the street for not dressing correctly. I think that it shows the quality of the art student that we have these days, especially in England.
Just trying to follow your career is exhausting. You literally do everything. Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, “I can’t do this anymore?”
I’ve thought that about music. But it’s not because of having too many responsibilities. I’ve just always wanted to escape doing music. I despise music almost more than literature and painting.
Do you despise listening to it or making it?
I haven’t listened to it for many, many years. I really stopped listening to music after 1977.
Are you kidding?
I listen to some old recordings, and blues recordings occasionally. But I mainly listen to classical. Basically I prefer not hearing music.
No new music in 35 years? Aren’t you curious about what you’ve missed?
You think all modern music is rubbish?
Well, it’s obvious that music, even before the pop age, has been a commodity. But it’s so specifically a commodity now. I think rock n’ roll is basically a dead art form and can only live away from sunlight. Exposure to the modern studio sound tends to destroy it. I think the artificial standards that have been applied to music recordings are far more stringent and conservative than the standards applied to fine art, and I find fine art already very conservative. For such a populist media, it is incredible how conservative and narrow the perimeters you’re allowed to work in music are.
Do you dream?
Like when I’m asleep?
Yeah. Are your dreams vivid and memorable?
I’ve had very vivid dreams on certain occasions that have been quite informative, but not recently.
Are your dreams surreal and nutty, like Dada paintings?
I promise I won’t try to psychoanalyze you.
No, no, it’s okay. I don’t have great dream recall, but in some situations I’ve had quite particular dreams that did stand out.
Would you be willing to share one?
Well, let’s see. [Long pause.] I was fighting in the American War of Independence, and I’d been captured by the British. I’m on a ship, and there’s a big John Bull figure, who’s like the British Uncle Sam, and he has me handcuffed and he’s taking me up the gangplank. And then an Indian girl walks over and takes me by the hand and dives off the gangplank and down into the water, and I’m taken down with her, as is the man who’s holding onto my handcuffs. He’s still shouting at me, even as we go underwater. And I remember thinking, this is incredible. Who shouts underwater? As we get deeper, he eventually disengages himself and swims back to the surface, and it’s just me and the Indian girl. She leads me into a subterranean cave, and we swim inside and there’s a trap door into a pub or a building. We can hear people speaking above us, and she opens the trap door and that’s when the dream is interrupted.
Have you used any of that for fodder in your art?
But it could be in there somewhere?
Probably. I presume everything is everywhere all the time.
Are you happy?
Hmm. [Long pause.]
Is that something that matters to you? Should life be about striving for happiness?
I think that striving in general is a problem. And striving for happiness would probably be a mistake.
You’re not big on striving?
I think striving would make anybody unhappy. I’ve learned to be, well, I’m learning to be content and understanding of where and who I am. Which I suppose would be considered happiness by some people.
There’s an old cliché that only unhappy people make art. Is that bullshit?
When I was younger, in my 20s, most of my paintings were quite dark. I remember painting with a girlfriend in Switzerland, in Zurich, at her studio. She was making something angst-ridden, some piece that she was planning to set fire to and throw out the window. I was working on my canvass, and I started whistling to myself. My painting was of a man, not unlike myself, who was holding a skull. She looked at it and said, “How can you sit there and paint such a dark, disturbing thing and whistle?” And I said to her, “Well, because I enjoy painting.”
So even if the content is unhappy, you’re not unhappy when you’re making it?
That’s it. I paint because I enjoy painting. The same would probably go with music. I enjoy making things. I’m just not necessarily a fan of the product.
You’ve been open about your struggles with alcoholism. I’ve known a few alcoholics, and from what I understand they drink because they’re trying to avoid feeling. Was that true for you?
There’s some truth in that. But actually, it might’ve been the opposite for me. I drank to feel. I think what people are mostly looking for in their life is drama and sensation. For a lot of us, we don’t feel that we’re really present or alive unless there’s some drama unfolding, whether it be a war in Afghanistan or a war in the kitchen.
The late writer Christopher Hitchens claimed that booze was his fuel. Was it your fuel?
I think I may have thought that for a time. When I first stopped drinking when I was in my early 30s, I had never played music sober. I’d never done a poetry reading sober. So doing those things without drinking, it was a different experience. And I did notice that I was much more…. open to everything. [Long pause.] Interesting. That does ring true to what you were saying before.
That people drink to avoid feeling?
Yes. Because performing sober, it could be more painful. So in that sense, you could be shutting down some amount of feeling with alcohol. I suppose there is a certain search for oblivion. And actually, I think that part of the reason I was able to successfully give up drinking was because I never blacked out. I never did achieve any kind of oblivion. Maybe if you can’t achieve oblivion, alcoholism is a waste of time.
Do you think alcoholism in your DNA? Was it passed down to you from your father?
It’s a possibility.
Did you get anything else from him? Anything better than a fondness for drink?
The main thing I got from my father is a narcissistic attitude. My father is an extreme narcissist. And I think I share quite a lot of his narcissism.
You’re a father, right? Two kids?
Have you consciously tried to avoid the mistakes of your father? Or do you just start with a clean slate and make up parenting as you go along?
I don’t have to avoid his mistakes, because they’re not a part of my nature. My father was unreasonably violent towards us when I was little, and I don’t have that capacity to be violent towards children. I don’t really have a capacity to be violent towards adults either. I’ve got quite a gentle, harmonious nature. Unfortunately, I’ve also got a very dark and vicious sense of humor.
Well, it can make for a very inharmonious situation sometimes, albeit not intentionally. And also being somewhat narcissistic, I occasionally don’t take other people’s feelings into consideration at times when I probably should.
You make fun of your kids?
No, I’m talking about interactions with people in general. In England, we used to be famous for our sense of humor. And that’s very much a thing of the past. I know very few people with a developed sense of humor. In the music and art world, it’s almost impossible to meet people with a sense of humor. They’re actually hostile towards people who have one. The art world especially is devoid of genuine wit and intelligent.
You don’t know any artists with a sense of humor?
Not a one. I really shouldn’t cry about it, but it’s caused all sorts of problems for me socially and in my career. I think that everything is possibly funny, and that certainly isn’t the case as far as everybody I meet is concerned.
Your kids are eventually going to grow up and become teenagers and consumers of pop culture.
My son is a teenager. He’s 13 now.
Is he obsessed with things like cellphones and computer games and Facebook pages and Justin Bieber?
He’s interested in cell phones and computer games, but not Justin Bieber or Facebook, as far as I’m aware. I don’t think he’s been sucked into those things yet.
But isn’t it just a matter of time? Or have you made convincing arguments to keep mainstream pop culture at bay?
My approach is to say, these things are designed to be addictive. They’re commercial commodities. They’re aimed at hooking us in. It’s smart to have some other options.
Your writing is intensely personal. Are you worried about your kids reading or hearing any of it?
Well, there’s a lot of things I’ve done that I don’t want to hear again either.
But that’s different. You know what they are. But your kids, when they’re old enough to be curious about what made their dad tick, they might want to track down some of this stuff.
If they’re curious and at a mature age, then that’s up to them. I wouldn’t condone it or encourage it, but I wouldn’t deny it either. My son doesn’t know all the things that have happened to me, because I don’t think it’s appropriate for children to worry or know about those things. When I was growing up, I had to worry and know about a lot of the adult world. And I’ve always tried to encourage my son not to worry about adult concerns. There’ll be time enough for that.
But when he does become an adult, there’s plenty for him to read. If he’s so inclined, he could find out things about you that most parents wouldn’t want their children knowing.
He could read one of your poems and go, “Dad got gonorrhea from a German prostitute? Ooookay, that’s something I can never get out of my head.”
I’ve prepared for that. My son’s very smart and quite adult, and he knows that I come from some dark places. But I haven’t given him any details about them. He can read about them when it’s appropriate. He knows that I was an alcoholic, because I’ve told him. I’ve discussed things about addiction with him. But he doesn’t know that I was sexually abused. He’s certainly not going to be shocked when he finds out about my previous life. Because I told him, “I didn’t do things too good up until I was 33.” I said, I actually said to him, “I didn’t have anybody to help or guide me for a long time, and I had to work them out on my own. It can be a tough thing to do alone. Luckily you have a daddy who cares about you and will talk to you about any issues that come up. Your job is to not worry about stuff.” I said those exact words to him.
In the U.S., there’s a lot of hand-wringing about privacy. People get worked up about Facebook and whether intimate details about their lives—or more specifically, their status updates and baby pictures—are being shared with strangers.
As somebody who’s made a career out of over-sharing intimate details, are we making much ado about nothing?
I don’t think so. I understand the anxiety. I don’t like people knowing about me, it’s just I’m a blabbermouth. Interestingly, I share these things in my poetry, but I wouldn’t share them on a social media website. It wouldn’t be something that would interest me. If you’re using these intimacies in a creative way, turning them into art, then maybe they’re not quite so mundane.
You’ve said in the past that writing has stopped you from turning into a psychopath. Were you being serious, or was that hyperbole?
I wrote that many, many years ago when I was a young man and maybe more dramatic, so it could have been hyperbole. But I remember, at the time, quite easily identifying with the darker aspects of being alive. I could understand the murderer’s mind.
I could empathize. It made sense to me. Because an important aspect of being a murderer is feeling that you’re not really alive. So these other things aren’t really alive either, so there really isn’t a consequence to your actions. Killing something or someone doesn’t mean a loss of anything of value.
There was a time this made sense to you?
In my 20s. You talked about dreams earlier. I remember having intense dreams when I was in my early 20s, about murder and death, and hiding dead bodies that I killed. So, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say writing helped me avoid becoming a psychopath. I think it’s something that I genuinely felt. But as a very sensitive person with an instinctual feeling for harmony, it’s not something I necessarily would have been able to see through.
You wouldn’t have become a full-on axe-wielding psycho?
No, not that far, certainly. But I felt at that time that art was holding me together somehow. I was speaking of the truth of those times. I had a strong identity with that psychopathic nature, because of my strong narcissistic aspect, which I think is integral to any psychopathic behavior.
You’ve said before that you’ve actively avoided fame. Did your narcissism have anything to do with that?
Well, if you already know you’ve got a disproportionately large ego, fame can only make it worse. Is there anything more unhealthy for a narcissist than having his suspicions confirmed?
Not really. If you already know you’re a narcissist, you’ve already negated the problem.
Are you sure?
If you know you can’t drive, then you don’t drive. A problem identified is a problem halved.
I don’t know if it’s that simple.
My father was always very keen on success and strived for many things, and he never seemed to gain any satisfaction from it. I’ve always found people who strive for fame or accolades to be quite vulgar. It doesn’t have good life-giving energy to it. It feels like a cage. What you’re doing is basically getting inside a cage and asking people if they’d like to lock the door.
Actually, that’s a pretty good analogy for fame.
I don’t believe in validation as a musician, validation as an artist, or validation from anybody. And this has caused me problems in school, and then in art school, and then in the art world, and then in the music world, and then in the literature world. It’s because I don’t want to hang around with the other people who say we’re all great, and I don’t seek validation. And that means I’m a danger. Not a bad danger. Not like a rebellious, scary danger. It just means that I might say something that offends people’s perceptions because I’m not a member of the club.
Saying you don’t want fame is a weird thing to hear in this country.
Saying you don’t want to be famous is like saying you don’t want to be rich. It’s what people who aren’t rich or famous say to make it look like it was intentional. But we all desire it, to some extent.
In England nobody would believe me when I said I didn’t want to be a successful painter, until I became a successful painter two or three years ago. It gives me a lot more leeway. Because now when I say it to people, when I say “I don’t care about money or fame,” they have to believe me, because previously they thought it might be sour grapes. [Laughs.] But as I said, I’m a narcissist. I like a little bit of attention. I enjoy talking about myself. I enjoy these things. I would never sell myself so short for money. Because my ambitions are far bigger than that. My ambitions are bigger than fame and money. So if you like, I think it’s beneath me.
Would the 23 year old you be able to look at the 53 year old you and say, “Well done, old man?”
I would say the 19 year old would be able to do that. I just wrote a song the other day with this new little group I’m in, and it poses that very question. Did the 19 year old you end up hating you? I think I’m doing okay in that regard.
But the 23 year old isn’t so sure?
Well, here’s how I’ve figured it out. The five year old me thinks I’m great. The 19 year old thinks I’m pretty cool. The only period I wouldn’t get along with so well might be the 22, 23, 24 year old. Because they’re a bloody nightmare.
Were their expectations just too high?
No, it’s just that they’re too focused on their own cock.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the February/March 2013 issue of Malibu Magazine.)