Say something awful: David Shrigley in conversation with Régis Laugier

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Minimalism, spontaneity, and the value of setting parameters.

Following the release of David Shrigley and Régis Laugier’s collaborative album, Play Something Awful, via The Vinyl Factory, the duo discuss their artistic processes, inspirations, and musings.

David Shrigley: How did the collaborative process on this project begin?

Régis Laugier: I was trying to remember the first time I heard your name, and I’m pretty sure it was with your Worried Noodles project.

I think your book was released around 2007, and it was around the time I was working with R. Stevie Moore, on a movie called I Am A Genius And There’s Nothing I Can Do About It, as well as the accompanying soundtrack. That’s the first time I heard your name, but I kept it in my mind for a few years, waiting for a good occasion to collaborate.

When my band Hifiklub celebrated its 10th anniversary, you remembered that we made an exhibition and a little edition of visuals that were imagined specifically for the anniversary, and you very kindly sent us one of the visuals. I think those were our first emails.

DS: I can never remember how I meet people. Some people just appear in your life and you can’t really remember how they arrived. But I remember when you came to Brighton with Hélène, before you got married. You were having a romantic weekend in Brighton. We went to my local bar, the Hand in Hand, where I live just round the corner.

With our project, It was kind of funny because that night when we met in Brighton, you were like, “Oh we should do something.” But my whole thing with spoken word was that while I originally did a bit myself, it was actually because I didn’t know enough actors or performers to perform for me.

I did a spoken word record in probably the year before the Worried Noodles release. I appear on some of the tracks, but I didn’t really like my voice and so over the years after that I got other people to perform. I know a few people who are really good actors, really good mimics of voice, so I’d go into the studio and make them do things. But that night you were adamant that I had to perform, and I was like “Oh god, I don’t want to do this.”

After a few months passed, I was like, “You know what, there are no rules, just give it a try and then maybe he’ll leave you alone!” So I did it and actually I did it with a friend of mine in a studio up the road, and I thought it was OK. What I liked about it was that it’s much easier because you don’t have to find an actor to do anything, you just do it yourself. And then you put the music together and I realised it was actually OK!

My criteria for deciding whether or not work is good enough to show to anybody is if it’s just not shit – as long as it’s not shit, it’s got to be alright. And this is definitely not shit – it’s actually quite good.

I’m sure part of why it’s quite good is probably because of your input rather than mine. I actually recorded takes within one long take and I don’t know if you realised it, but you left everything in – there are bits where I’m laughing, where I say the same thing several times.

RL: I didn’t know that you did different takes in the same file. At one moment you are laughing, and going back into the recording, but except for that track I didn’t notice that you did different takes inside of the same track.

DS: My criteria for doing it was that when I recorded it with Lee Baker – a good friend of mine who I did the Problem in Brighton with – I would make him laugh. If I could make him laugh then I thought it was alright. In a way that’s why I generally only did them in one take, in the same way that you and Anthony Herbin did the music. It was very much a ‘one take’ album.

RL: Spontaneity is a key word. Since the beginning we wanted to stay as fresh as possible, as spontaneous as possible. I don’t think I heard any of your takes when I first downloaded them on my computer. I didn’t want to hear the lyrics before being in front of the computer with my bass in my hands and being able to record anything.

Every Tuesday I would meet Anthony and we would open two or three projects, depending on how much time we had. Then we would listen to the vocals a second time, but with instruments in our hands.

We were trying to find some riffs and rules as quickly as possible. The files that you sent were two or three minutes long, so we had to be very quick. On the third listen, we started to record one take, and maybe a second take if we wanted to change some ideas here and there. But everything was super spontaneous. I think it’s half way between heavy pop and improvised music because there are some spontaneous riffs and melodies. But it’s not super abstract, I think what we did is pretty accessible.

DS: I think so. It sounds like music. Which is good. It’s not a soundscape, it feels like it has a structure to it. Each spoken word piece has a narrative to it, which helps it a bit. Musically, it felt quite polished – in a good way. It felt very finished, even though you say it was very spontaneous.

The great thing about music and collaboration is that you don’t know what’s going to happen.

I didn’t have any input into the music in this piece, apart from the beats I had in my headphones when I was doing it, so it was easier for you to integrate the words.

I have such unsophisticated tools: just my voice and nothing else. I write the words, which I suppose is the considered part for me. I tend to write when I’m travelling. I think all those words I probably wrote on planes and trains. That’s my time for writing, when I’m going to New York or to Paris on the Eurostar.

RL: Some of the lyrics are from older drawings also, or did you write them specifically for the project?

DS: I think one or two of them are perhaps from other things. I’ve got a folder on my desktop which says ‘Songs for Régis’. Mostly I wrote them for this. Well, I didn’t write them for this I’d written them anyways — I write many, many things.

I see them as poems, somehow. I like poetry, and I like the idea of writing poetry, because it’s a bit like opera: there’s something slightly pretentious about writing a poem, or at least there is when you’re me, whose known for making Dada conceptual art, cartoon nonsense stuff. I like the fact that you’re allowed to sit down and write a poem. And usually they’re quite comic and stupid. The nice thing about writing poems is that I’m writing them on my laptop on a plane or a train, so I can correct them.

If I’m flying to LA, I’ve got ten hours to write, so what I do is I have my laptop fully charged, and then I write for around eight to ten hours until it dies, then it’s finished. On the way back I do the same thing again and go back over them so I can re-write them, and that’s something that I don’t really do with drawings, because everything is just done once.

I don’t redraw anything, all the mistakes remain in the work. The mistakes end up being the work. Whereas with writing, when you’re writing on your laptop, you can constantly correct everything, you can correct your spelling mistakes as well, which I don’t do in drawings – there are lots of spelling mistakes. One of the nice things about this project is that I’ve never really known what to do with the poems, and now I’ve done something with them.

The other thing I’ve realised is that being forced by you to perform these myself actually made me understand them a bit more.

When I’m in the studio with an actor – I use my friend Gavin Mitchell – I’m always trying to describe how I want them to be spoken and there’s a certain meter of the speech, but sometimes it takes him a while to do and sometimes I listen to him and there’s a few things I wanted him to do differently. But when you do it yourself, there’s no excuse. Maybe it was a good exercise. Whether I’ll do it again, I’m not sure.

RL: One of the key elements was the BPM (beats per minute) that you gave me. It made things much easier, rhythmically speaking. All of the grooves, the patterns that you heard on the album are very accessible, very simple. But the BPM that you gave us was so important because it helped us [make sure] your vocals were always at the right pace. It also gave the whole album a lot of contrast, so we had slower sounds, faster ones – it was a key element.

Another key element was the no guitar rule – there’s no guitar on the album, just bass and drums, a tiny bit of percussions, and mandolins on one track. We have three key words: spontaneity, because it was two or three takes, no guitar, which is what you heard in the end, and no turning back!

DS: I think sometimes the best projects are the ones where they are just a project, where you set yourself some limits, and you just try to operate within those limits. I actually didn’t realise until I read what you’d written in response to the questions that there was no guitar on it. It seems really ironic given that I’ve got a picture of a guitar on the album cover.

I really like the idea of making music and missing out one key element – making rock and not having a guitar. Maybe that’s my role with the guitar: it just sits on the stand and I don’t play it. If we ever do it live, we’ll have the guitar and the amp and I just won’t touch it.

I always like music when you miss out one thing. I love Rhys Chatham, and most of those records from the ’70s, but my favourite one of his is ‘Two Gongs’.

RL: I remember we spoke about this at the pub.

DS: ‘Two Gongs’ is the best one. Just two gongs and nothing else.

RL: Visually speaking, you also made the two animations for the two singles that we’re releasing with The Vinyl Factory.

DS: I feel I had to put in a little bit more effort, because you and Anthony spent a lot more time with the recording than I did. I guess I wrote the lyrics, but the performance didn’t take too long, so I felt like I had to do some work.

My idea was to do something very minimal, and ‘Hey You’, as you will understand, is a very minimal animation. That’s my thing about animation, because the word animation means to make something move, so my quite contrary attitude is to make animations where there isn’t a lot of movement.

I don’t like illustration, either. There’s all these objects and actions that are mentioned in the song, and none of them are illustrated at all. The only thing that’s illustrated is when he’s dancing, and he’s not even really dancing very much.

In a way it’s like the whole attitude with the project, which was very minimal – you’ve taken away quite important things, like the guitar, and denied ourselves the opportunity to use them. But anyways, I’m glad you’re happy with the animation.

RL: It worked really well. Another big animation you did in the past was for Blur, right?

DS: Yeah, it was a long time ago now. I think I’ve only done a couple of pop videos, one was for Blur and one was for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, both around the same time. It was quite a sophisticated animation, and I collaborated with some guys who had done a lot of pop promos in the past.

Pop promos are difficult, I don’t think I’d ever do one now. The only ones that I’d do would be for music that I’d actually made myself. You think of how many songs and how many pop videos there are in the world, it’s sort of an impossible proposition to make a good pop promo. I’d never do it.

RL: Yeah it’s just for the internet, it’ll always be seen on very small screens. I really love the super minimalist animations for our album, because minimalism is on the list of keywords. This DIY, no turning back, no guitar, it’s spontaneous.

DS: Minimalism and economics are kind of the same thing. I like to use the word economical because you don’t want to spend too much money on anything. But then you don’t want to appear to me mean, so you call it minimalism. As if it’s some kind of theoretical, conceptual choice that you’ve made.

I guess I’m joking. I want everything to be economical – one of the first lessons I learnt as an artist is that you don’t make anything bigger than it needs to be. Sometimes it’s good to make it smaller than it needs to be.

I like animation where there’s very little movement in it, and very little illustration, because the whole thing about making a film is that you’re supposed to show people things rather than tell them things, so the narrative exists in people’s imaginations.

Once you set yourself some parameters, certain things you’re allowed to do and certain things you’re not, it can make things a lot richer. You can get a lot more from the things you are allowed to do, whereas if you have limitless possibilities somehow things can become very difficult.

If you have too much choice you don’t know what you want, and it becomes very difficult to make the decisions that you have to make.

Now that I think about it, I think you made a wise choice to get rid of the guitar. The only guitar on the album is the picture on the cover.


David Shrigley and Régis Laugier Laugier’s Play Something Awful is out now, on The Vinyl Factory.

Illustration by: David Shrigley.