“I like pretending to be a rock star.”
Mark Leckey is joking, but it’s probably true. He’s the Turner Prize-winning visual artist whose sculptures are sound systems and whose artworks are music videos; a huge lithograph of Little Richard looms near the kitchen table of his modest north London flat where we’re talking. With his long hair, handlebar moustache and single drop earring, he definitely looks like a rock star.
“The promise of music isn’t just the sound of it,” he says in his soft Scouse accent. “It’s about the conditions that it’s made under, and the conditions that create it and the technologies and everything else. That is part of your enjoyment of music – or it always was for me.”
The reason I’m talking to Leckey about music and not art (although there is little distinction between the two in his work) is because he’s just released a soundtrack to his video Dream English Kid 1964 – 1999AD. The 20-minute montage of image and sound (below), sourced from over three decades of archive footage, is an eerie and intimate insight into the man that is Mark Leckey.
“Dream English Kid was about seeing if I could reconstruct my life from everything that’s online”
Recently released as an album on The Death of Rave label, the soundtrack comes 17 years after Leckey broke into the art world with what remains his most famous and work, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore – a 15-minute mash-up of found footage and moving image that maps the evolution (and arguable demise) of British dance culture up to the turn of the 21st century. Made in 1999, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore placed the speed-fuelled Northern Soul and flared-trousered disco of the 1970s in a lineage with the hedonistic hardcore and rave of the 1990s, and has achieved cult status since. As well as influencing the recent upsurge of rave nostalgia felt in the hardcore and jungle-inspired output of Zomby, Four Tet, Lee Gamble and Imaginary Forces, the video was liberally sampled by Jamie xx on his 2014 hit ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ and directly referenced by IVVVO on 2015’s Mark Leckey Made Me Hardcore. But don’t ask him his opinion on the artwork’s continued impact – he says he doesn’t have one, explaining that he prefers not to comment on a generation or culture that isn’t his own.
The action of Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore takes place against the backdrop of northern English streets, shopping centres and council estates inhabited by covert football hooligans, also referred to as ‘casuals’. Leckey, too, was one of them.
“You would dress in this very loud sports gear that would make you stand out in a crowd,” he remembers. “You’d be in a crowd, all in this same look that caught people’s attention, but [the police] couldn’t determine who you were so you would slip through, because they weren’t looking for you, they were looking for skinheads. They were looking for people that looked like thugs or football hooligans, so you could walk around the back of the police line because you looked like some strange golfer.”
Now 52, Leckey’s art is still informed by his past, if not in the actual material he works with (the cut-ups are repurposed from what is essentially a history of broadcast media) then in the spirit of disruption and self-expression that he draws from. “I listen to hardcore before I make any work, because I think in those records there’s everything that I want to do,” he says.
“Its use of technology, its euphoria, its anxieties – it’s all there. And I just want to make work like that, or that carries those kinds of feelings. You can think about it and you can feel it. It is kind of both intellectual and visceral, and that’s what I want to make with my work – rather than just being conceptual. I’d like to say I’m not interested in that, but I’m too enculturated in that kind of stuff. But I’m always trying to escape it.”
“I thought hardcore was so badly overlooked. There was a real snobbery about it”
Is your openness to doing an interview with a music magazine part of this feeling of not wanting to make art?
Yeah, maybe. I like talking to music journalists because I like music. I’m trying to look like a rock star. I’m trying to do it all.
Did you ever DJ?
No. I played records, or not even that, I played CDs. I had a band for a bit, we had some kind of art band…
JackTooJack, exactly! And donAteller. donAteller was me and this guy Edwin Burdis, who was then called Ed Laliq. We would just go through CDs and essentially it was mash-ups. Me and him made the music and I would sing over the top of them.
I did a bit of research on what casuals were – was that like a football thing?
It was sort of a football thing, but not necessarily – it sort of converged around football rather than music. I used to go to football but you didn’t necessarily have to be into football to be into it. It was just if you were working class, that’s the way you dressed. At the time you had all the little subcultures, you know – there were goths and the remnants of punk and stuff like that, but goths would be more middle class, or more suburban. Scallies were more urban, or more a city thing. Even though I’m from the suburbs.
Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is a reference to that culture, right?
Do you want me to tell you where the title comes from? [Laughs] So yeah, part of being a casual, Fiorucci was one of the labels you would wear and it was all about labels. It was sort of the beginning of that. It that the first time people – well, the first time working class youth got really into labels and brands, and Fiorucci was one of them. But years ago there was an exhibition of documents and photographs to do with Warhol and that was graffitied outside Studio 54: “Fiorucci made me hardcore”.
Have you thought about the cultural influence of that video?
How would I do that? [Laughs] I don’t know. It’s too tied up with… I mean, Fiorucci… has this weird and wonderful distinction of being celebrated outside the art world, and in that sense I can’t measure it. You can measure things in the art world. You can watch things progress and do well or whatever. I essentially set out to make – I don’t know if I deliberately did – but it’s basically a cult video made from years of watching cult videos. I must have absorbed that kind of impulse, but that’s all it is, really. It’s a kind of cult and it seems to me it’s just happening to hit that kind of trend. Of course it’s into the early ‘90s, it’s their turn in the cycle of things.
At the same time, I think a reason to make Fiorucci…, part of it was because I thought hardcore was just so badly overlooked. There was a real snobbery about it and I think it’s fucking amazing music. I think it was the most amazing music that was made after the guitar music of the past 50 years. It’s kind of garage [rock] for synthesisers. So I made this video to celebrate that, and I think maybe people are just realising that now.
If you were there at the time in the ‘90s, that hardcore scene was very… it was quite yobbish and it was quite full on. I was kind of a snob about it and I stopped going and it wasn’t until later I realised how good it was. But at the time I was a bit too old and I didn’t want to go there with loads of lads with no tops on rubbing Vicks on their chest and blowing whistles in your face.
“I’m always frustrated by art’s insularity, its inability to communicate more effectively”
From what I can tell, you’ve had quite an ambivalent relationship to art. Why didn’t you just do music, or move into making music videos?
I tried and failed. I think subcultures were kind of losing their vitality. That’s where I would have naturally gone before but it was dying out, in a way. Whereas art was kind of starting to open up and you could access it.
The aesthetic of Fiorucci is very much “of the internet”. But part of the value of that video, at least in the late ‘90s, would also have been the inaccessibility of the actual footage. What people use now in archive-based art is often sourced from YouTube.
That’s what Dream English Kid was about – to see if I could reconstruct my life from everything that’s online, and it was sort of 70 per cent realised. There’s a lot of stuff I made in there, but even in the making of things I was aided by the internet.
When you sat down and decided you were going to do this, where you thinking, ‘all this stuff is available online, so I’m going to just make a portrait of myself from that’?
I wasn’t setting out to make a portrait in that sense, although everything I do is some kind of… I don’t even like that line, but yeah, it is. That’s the exciting bit, that I’ve gone, ‘Oh great, I’ve come up with an idea where I can basically try and find the right samples that resonate with a particular time in my life.’ I just had folders of ‘60s music, ‘70s music, ‘80s music, and I spent about a year putting them in. I’ve got tons and tons of them. It’s crate-digging. It’s just that geeky crate-digging impulse, to find the rarest unheard tracks.
Are the samples in Dream English Kid quite rare?
Well, I’m saying that, but no – just in terms of not being obvious, but stuff that people can still relate to. The one that everyone’s picked up on in that video is The Native Hipsters, ‘There Goes Concorde Again’. It’s this woman who has this really plummy voice and this weird, “Oh look, there goes Concorde again.” It’s this record that John Peel used to play in the late ‘70s all the time and to me it’s just so evocative of that time. It’s the hope or the knowledge that it will resonate like that for everyone else, but that’s what samples do, isn’t it? They’re like little weird condensed moments of time that release this kind of magic. That’s why they get so expensive. [Laughs] Because when they’re really good they’re so powerful, because they somehow say ‘This is 1976’ in just three seconds.
The audio recording has the dates running from 1964 to 1999. Why did you choose those particular dates?
So, ‘64 is when I was born and ‘99 was the end of the century, and also it’s when I made Fiorucci… and things changed for me. Until then I was lost, basically. I was quite lost, and then that kind of gave me a focus, or whatever. But more importantly, I think it was sort of the beginning of the internet and everything changed.
It acts as quite a good parallel to Fiorucci… because Dream English Kid is basically your experience of your upbringing and your past via a sort of personalised stream of mass-mediation. It feels far less of a moment, I don’t want to say it’s nostalgic…
It is nostalgic. It’s very nostalgic.
How many of the samples you used are personal ones? There’s the opening with someone yelling, “Mark, Mark!”
That’s my mum. I just asked my mum to do it. I wanted her in there. That thing you were asking about not making art, it’s that. It’s very hard not to be seduced by the sort of apparatus of art, the discourse and the response that you can get if your work chimes with that. Then it can seem like your work is contemporary, and is asking all the right questions, or whatever. But I find it really… I’m always frustrated by art’s insularity, for want of a better word – its inability to communicate more effectively. Because I don’t buy all the arguments that art’s difficulty is somehow in advance of the rest of culture. I don’t buy that anymore.
You mentioned never quite being in the middle of it when it came to hardcore culture. That implies a certain distance you have with this work as an artist, even as you’re trying to be emotionally invested.
I’m trying to be as immersed as I can. If Fiorucci… works, one of the reasons, I think, is because I was emotionally invested in it. It’s like what you said about nostalgia, it’s very nostalgic. It’s this melancholy, because that’s the way I was feeling. If anything I’m trying to transmit that. It’s me looking at that stuff, showing it to you and saying, “This makes me feel this. Do you respond the same way?”
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