Max Olijnyk

Fergus Purcell interview

This piece was written for the Heavy Mental in 2009. At the time, I was recovering from a serious brain injury and also readjusting to life as a single person, and rethinking everything. I found/find Fergus’s take on things really inspiring. He’s so straight up and uncompromising, but really nice and funny at the same time. What a guy. I’d love to talk to him again.

People spend a lot of their time doing things they don’t really want to do, in order to do the things they love. Some even become charity muggers, smilingly ambushing people on the street and attempting to guilt-trip them into setting up a direct debit to a charity they don’t really care about. This bogus activity goes on in order to pay the rent and deal with the reality of life, so they can save up to do more backpacking; that is if they’re not too traumatised from being a lousy charity mugger.
That’s a fine way to operate – who am I to judge? However, it is quite a powerful thing to encounter someone who lives so completely on their own terms as Fergus Purcell. Aside from all the cool stuff he makes, it’s the commitment to his passion that is most inspiring. He has found what he likes doing, and that’s what he does, and he’s been doing it for ages. He’s not removed from the world of crappy stuff – he’s actually engaged and amused by it, he’s enhancing and playing with it in his own way.
Fergus’ work is often very simple, but it has a consistent defiance, a true humour about it that can only come from living in such an honest, authentic fashion. The thrill you get from interacting with his work is a little taste of that energy, honed and practiced and lived for so many years.

MO: Iconography is central to your work – and things like metal, punk, sci-fi and skateboarding are obviously a big influence. But what makes it really interesting to me is the humour behind it, the way you piece things together and make an instantly recognisable yet twisted image, which has layers of funniness. What are your influences as far as humour goes?

FP: Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I’m glad you find it funny. Years ago when I was conceiving my manifesto/operating manual/battle plan I decided that sex and humour would be two key components to my work. I loved the idea that the responses to each were automatic body functions: you either get turned on, or you laugh. They’re very direct routes to someone’s consciousness and can bypass more elevated layers of programming. I think that you can’t fake humour. People can rip off a visual style, or plunder cool cultural references, but they can’t fake the humour. It just comes from a way of looking at the world. It’s something that me and Misha (from P.A.M.) really share and was instrumental in bringing us together in the first place. I think we’d both say that it’s not about just being funny, it’s about fun. As far as influences go, I’d credit George Clinton with being a big inspiration of how the Cosmic Truth included a lot of laughter and how the Fool is Cool. I guess his line “Nothing is good unless you play with it” sums it up. Oh yeah, one more thing, I went to see a Robert Crumb show some years ago in a “proper” Art Gallery and the place was filled with laughter, it was magic.

I once did a t-shirt that read ‘is it murder, to turn off a computer?’ – it was a straight rip-off from an amazing book about the making of 2001 A Space Odyssey. But when I started wearing it around, people couldn’t figure it out, or thought it was referring to turning off a life-support machine. I felt funny about wearing it, as the original intention was to give a nod to Stanley, not to enter the euthanasia debate. How do you feel when your humour or work is misinterpreted? Does that ever happen?

I don’t think I have an equivalent anecdote. I’m sure that all my themes have been misinterpreted by someone somewhere. I actually like these misinterpretations; they give new life to an idea. I think a lot of the best work is a bit layered and nuanced, so actually invites a mixed response, which would include misinterpretation. T-shirts should be a conversation after all, not just a monologue. They work as a medium of communication in the Theatre of the Street. I aim to design t-shirts that engage very directly with this concept. I love hearing the stories about what happened when people wore my shirts – to the responses they got – and I like wearing shirts myself that get a reaction. It’s like you’ve got this billboard on your chest… why rent it out to commercial fashion to advertise their brand? It’s yours and you can say something with it. The shirt that I wore that got the biggest response was one I did that said “Grow Your Hair” on the front and “Stay In Bed” on the back. It was made to celebrate (and further propagate) the ideas of John and Yoko’s Bed In. I don’t know why, but that really got people going – some people got really antagonistic! My other big success in this field was one I did for Silas, that said “I’m Against It!” on the front. That always got a strong reaction – I had to have some snappy one-liners ready when I wore it.

That’s great, how something you are wearing is almost like carrying a placard through the streets. I admit I’m often shocked by some of the slogan tees I see, particularly on teenage girls. It’s like they’re not completely aware of what the tee is proclaiming, or maybe I don’t get it and they’re wearing it in a way that is separate from even irony. It’s a weird one, but I suppose it’s a valid form of expression. I mean, something like ‘I’m on the naughty list’, that’s a pretty layered statement for a 12 year old to be wearing!

Yeah, that can be a weird one… but what I actually find weirder is the slogans that adults wear. It’s like there’s this constant desire to appear to be making a statement without saying anything. That’s everything from those brand new sweatshirts that say “Authentic New Original Vintage Denim” or yet another of those takes on the Ramones’ logo (insert name here). It so strange to me… have a look and almost all of these type of t-shirt slogans actually have a TOTALLY inverted meaning. Guaranteed the guy wearing the Ramones type logo doesn’t give a shit about them (if he did, he’d just wear a Ramones t-shirt). The normies want the smell/essence/hint of something cool, but safely processed, sanitised and denuded of any of its real power. The Ramones were NEVER theirs, the Ramones were always for the spazzes, uglies, nerds, retards and rejects! There was a case here in the UK of a high street brand using an image, unwittingly, from the Russian Prison Tattoos book. I suppose they chose it ‘cos it was a crest (hah!), but its Russian text bore a full on White Power statement. This was discovered and then withdrawn amidst much public apologising bullshit… but what I found shocking is that it’s such a strong example of this phenomena of no one caring about the messages they wear and propagate, about what statements they’re making about themselves. How robbed they are of their own sense of identity and sense of self. That’s strictly Babylon Cancer Brain Drain biznizz!

Some people dream of doing their own thing full-time, whilst others get a kick out of working a day job, enjoying the balance and freedom it brings to their creative work. I’m sure you’ve worked some interesting jobs in the past; can you tell us about a couple of them and your thoughts on the whole balance of it all?

I’ve only done one proper job, which was part time in a Bullshit Corporate Healthfood store. The Manager thought I was retarded, so I used to make it a point of honour to consume the products in front of her; she’d walk me round the shop, reprimanding me for various details, while I would follow her, reaching onto the shelves to grab a fruit bar or some such and then unwrap it and eat it as she was still lecturing me on correct shelf display protocol. I’d nod and look serious with a mouth full of health bar. She never did notice. Waste of both our time, really. As for the balance… that’s hard. You do what you’ve got to do. If you’re out there reading this and you’re still doing that bullshit job, just hang in there and keep doing your thing. Really. It took me AGES to get anywhere! And if you’re in the happy position of being able to balance a job working for someone else and then doing your own thing on the side, then that’s great – you’re clever.

It’s interesting to think about the fact it took you ages to get anywhere, as you put it! Was that a matter of letting things evolve organically, both in terms of developing your work and establishing contacts? Or was there a sense of banging your head against a brick wall at any point?

Oh yeah, there was a wall and I was banging away! I was only ever ruled by my own stubbornness (I’m an aries). I started my college degree thinking that I would finish as a commercial graphic designer working within that industry… and the main thing I learned is that wasn’t the path for me! I don’t mean to be flippant, or put down my college experience; I had a great time there and it was a super valuable lesson to learn. So I started again after college and I had this obsessional desire to have a really great body of work, to leave a string of beautiful and coherent and deepening work in my wake, to work only for people I liked on projects that were interesting and only sell product that I fully believed in… and to entirely avoid that idea that you do a really shit project, that leads to a shit one, that leads to a quite shit one, etc. and so on up the ladder to finally arrive somewhere decent. I don’t think you can get anywhere like that… apart from learning how to water down your work. I think you’ve got to start strong. It’s good to have a bit of adversity at the start of your career, it helps you to define your stance. It helps you to find your voice. I think that NO ONE is going to give you permission to professionally go out on a limb, make groundbreaking work and really try and communicate what it is you’ve got to say. To make your contribution. You have to be determined and win for yourself the space to do this. To exert your will and manifest yourself through your work. The best design, art and music all comes from this approach. I have no complaints about my wayward career path, it’s always been my decisions. I really enjoy working on new stuff now and seeing what’s going to happen next. I feel lucky to be here.

Ben Sansbury once said to me that he thinks one of the most important things for a creative person to do is to travel as much as they can, twice a year if possible. What role does travel play in your work, and where are some places you’d like to visit?

Bennie! He’s a close friend (literally, too: he just lives round the corner) and a bIg inspiration to me. He’s so right about the travelling thing. I LOVE to travel, I’ve just got back from Spain, where I spent an idyllic week with my wife, hanging out on the hippy beach. I’ve been amazingly lucky to have worked in Tokyo (where the energy is really conducive to making artwork); to have recorded music in Ibiza (where the energy is most Balearic) and to have DJed on the beach in Italy (which was just plain GREAT). I’ve toured America a few times with the Beta Band, riding round in the tour bus, which was amazing. I went to Russia when I was a teenager and it was still a fully communist country. It was like visiting another planet. I’ve been to Melbourne quite a few times and I love it there; it’s a special place on this earth. Big enough to be cosmopolitan, but small enough to be forced to make its own cool scene. The Australian way of life seems really good to me. There are so many places to see… I’d love to go to Hawaii, South America and India and… and…

I should mention, too, that the IDEA of travel is also important to my work. I went to see a great Henri Rousseau show a couple of years ago. I really like his stuff – you know, all those lush, dreamlike and slightly naive paintings of the Jungle – and I was amazed that he’d NEVER left France and took all his imagery from books or exhibitions that he’d seen. Perfect! I like that thing of travelling with your mind and also the phenomenon of mistranslation that results. His interpretation of a partly imagined junglescape created a new place that never actually existed. These cultural mistranslations go both ways and are always interesting. Like the way that European things are integrated into African art. I think there’s a double standard these days about this. Political correctness frowns on this cultural tourism, when it comes to us Europeans taking influence from Africa. It’s as though any such influence needs to be rigorously researched and worthy, lest it be deemed patronising, while African artifacts that show a European or American influence are readily (and rightly) embraced. I think that naive curiosity about very alien cultures is really cool and I’m a big fan of hybridisation in all it’s forms. A good example is a lot of that 80s electronic/post punk music (even the pop stuff, too). It contained a strong element of naive African-ism, even Jungle-ism, that didn’t really attempt to be authentic. Instead it was just supposed to elicit a romantic notion of otherness.

I like that naivety creates its own authenticity in a way. It’s also a sense of the fact the artists really were excited by what they were doing, don’t you think? This gets even more complex in my opinion, with the loss of context that comes with the internet. Every piece of information is sort of equal and available and misplaced, which is kind of great, but also very different to how things were beforehand. Do you ever think about what it must be like for people who never came upon their passions through physically seeking out information?

I think if I was a kid now, I’d be having a Total Brain Spazz Mind Meld… in a good way. There are such fantastic & inspiring things to be seen; on Youtube, on Google, on blogs. It’s fascinating. Personally, I really enjoyed the process of digging that was necessary to get deep into stuff when I was younger. The ONE THING that’s missing now is that fabulous sense of mystery that cloaked these weird culty things. I think a big part of the attraction was that very sense of seductive mystery. I was plugged into a network of information that included raiding the local video rental place, Tape swapping, going to Forbidden Planet (when it was tiny and on Denmark Street) and reading the comix… “This isn’t a fucking library!” would be the regular shout from the staff… seeing films at the Scala, going to Slam when it was on Talbot Road, going to Clubs, etc. and while I can wax nostalgic about this, I feel that this lost mystery is compensated for by the wonderful and powerful technology that kids now have at hand. It’s SO liberating! When I was a kid, I envisaged working in graphics and at that point (70s, early 80s) the working model was: you had a large studio, which would need to be staffed by, say, three people. There’d be a darkroom, a Grant enlarger, a photocopier if you were flash (or lucky), drawers of Letraset, full sets of technical pens, an airbrushing booth, etc. The start-up for all this would be untold thousands, even in 70s money. Now, if you’ve got a laptop, scanner and digi camera, you’re away, and that’s all very affordable. I still really get a buzz out of that and I love the freedom that comes with it. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of tech kids come up with, all hopped up on youtube and blasting away on their computers.

I procrastinate a lot. Sometimes it seems anything is preferable to what I should be doing, even if that is something I apparently love doing. Do you ever get this? If so, how do you get around it?

I pretty much get on with stuff and don’t fuck around. I really enjoy doing the work that I do and I prefer to work on stuff as swiftly as possible – the process of Visual Creation is really fun to me and is totally non-painful or dysfunctional – in fact I would say that it’s the total opposite for me: it’s a zone where I am in complete control, completely contented. I try and schedule my projects so that I deliver well before deadline – not always possible, of course. I really don’t like the stress of time-pressure and so I don’t procrastinate.

Back to the iconography – are you still as passionate about the bands, films and comics that dominate your sketchbooks as you were when you were younger? Have your tastes changed much over the years?

My tastes have broadened, but remain rooted in the same things. Certain phases and crazes have fallen by the wayside, but I’m pretty much into the same stuff, I’ve just added layers and layers of new things. Andy Warhol, Moebius, 2,000 AD comic (’80-’82ish), Richard Corben, Spain, Jack Kirby, Phillip K. Dick, Gary Panter, Rod Kierkegaard Jr. – they were all early influences for me and are still really important. There have been so many important moments with art and music that have really shaped me: hearing Can for the first time, seeing the Boredoms play live in ’93, going to the ballet to see Twyla Tharp’s In The Upper Room scored by Phillip Glass. Listening to DJ Harvey’s Sarcastic mix really reconfigured my head and opened doors… it still blows my mind. I’m always looking for new stuff; hunting and gathering. More recent discoveries have been the artists Daniel Richter (MegaGenius) and Christian Ward. Ben (Sansbury) and Misha [Hollenbach] are two people that I’m constantly swapping new info with – artists/mixes/books/films – and their artwork is a constant influence and inspiration too.

I enjoy looking at your work, partly because you seem to be a very likeable person, and it is nice to see things through your perspective. Are there any artists whose work you like or are affected by, but you don’t get a sense of liking them? Like asshole artists but their work is great?

Hah, funny question… and that’s nice of you to say that. I guess with artists whose work I like, I tend to project positive qualities onto them, I want to like them. I haven’t had the crushing disappointment of meeting an artist whose work I like and then finding them to be a wanker… I HAVE had that with musicians a couple of times. I suppose you want me to name names… but I won’t! I’ll tell you instead about the time I experienced the exact opposite – when I met a hero who proved to be even cooler than I could have hoped: I met Eye in Tokyo, years ago (he’s the visionary Artist & leader of the Boredoms). He’s a BIG hero of mine, I love his art and music, and he was just INCREDIBLE in person. He was friendly and interesting and interested, but he also had this palpable Wizardly Shamanic presence and energy that was amazing to behold. He is way COOL and DEEEEEEEEEEEP!