Pinning down the inimitable, insatiable, incorrigible Tinhead was always going to be a challenge. We gave it our best shot.

We want all our artists to be like Tinhead.

An impressively hefty man, a shock of blonde hair and a booming voice, it seems nigh on impossible his personality might overshadow his sheer physical presence. Yet it somehow does.

The young Oxford-based artist surged into the public consciousness in 2008 with the now iconic front cover for Foals’ debut album,Antidotes, a record which heralded a new era of UK indie, combining a highly stylised image with intelligent and complex musicianship and an artistic sensibility. This was followed by artwork for a series of critically and publicly lauded singles including Balloons and Cassius. This spark suddenly saw him propelled to being one of the most distinctive illustrative visions in the country. The pencil-sketched cover of the album alongside the erratic and vivid artwork for the accompanying singles displayed an individual who, even so early in his career, could not be comfortably attached to a single style.

His work has expanded further, from seemingly haphazard bursts of energy to symmetrical, photograph-based images, whilst also incorporating installations and even short film. Fully aware of the importance of constant development and progression in his chosen field (or fields), this is a young man who exudes creativity at every turn.

Meeting him in an upmarket Oxford boozer, we are swiftly transported back to the spanking new Tinhead residence, box of cider and fish and chips in tow. When interview time is upon us, we are summoned to his room where he begins feverishly pawing through copies of his recent work with machine-gun chatter lunging from topic to topic. He strains to sit still, jumping around, switching between a range of voices and accents, moving breathlessly between amusing anecdotes about his time as a bin man and low-key moments of introspection about the darkness which lies beneath the surface of his work. “I’ve been working on a project based on fear of everything,” he tells us, “I don’t think anything good is ever really going to happen in the end.”

His involvement with the Oxford creative collective Blessing Force has seen him move from illustration to a realm in which he is not entirely comfortable, that of the fine art exhibition. “Now I feel like I have to get some kind of message across. It’s also trying to make it into a show, so people find it interesting, even if they don’t get the message. If somebody’s done a poo in a cup, you can’t show your Nan that, can you?”

You can’t… So when did you start doing fine art shows?

I’ve done a few now. We did one at Modern Art Oxford, and I never thought I’d be in a modern art gallery. I did originally want to be a painter but I realised I didn’t have the gift of the gab, in that world. I mean, I could probably sell someone some jeans, like Derek Trotter. I think I know what’s happening in my mind, but it’s difficult for me to convey it.

Can you attribute the fact that you’ve moved into fine art to your studies? What was your formal art education?

I did an illustration degree, which I finished two years ago. With illustration I was told you’ve got a ten-year shelf life. You can be in vogue for a bit, but how often does that last? David Shrigley’s still big, but at one point everyone was bumming him. I’ve just done this advert for Grolsch in Australia, which is great cause it’s given me a bit of money to move. There’s only so much inspiration you can get living on your own in a small room with a dog. I needed a change of scenery as I find it hard to get inspired by anything other than seeing things. But not like (adopts toff accent) ‘I’m going travelling to Perauh on my gap yah’. That’s gonna fuck me up, I’d just end up with diarrhoea and get the hump.

Is that why you’re so open to commissions then?

Yeah, I like doing lots of different things. I mean, this Grolsch commission, that wasn’t really an advert, it was almost like they sponsored us. I worked with a Melbourne-based street artist called Reka One. I’d like to do more advertising type stuff though, because even though it’s commercial, it’s the hardest brief because to an extent there’s only a certain type of person who’s going to go to an art exhibition. If it’s billboard or telly or something, everyone’s going to see that, and you’ve got to aim to appeal to the ordinary person as well as a millionaire playboy or whatever.

I also want to try to create more timeless images. The first front cover I did for Foals, that could have been made in the 80s or it could be from the future. I’d like to do more stuff like that, not in the same way visually, but of the same essence. I’ve had some ideas for things I’d like to do with photography, almost like some of the greats like Storm Thorgerson, people who became something. But when you speak to that guy he’s such an angry old bastard. I helped put an exhibition up with him once and he did a talk. He was just this miserable person, but the longer I go on in this industry I get fed up with people as well, so I can see myself becoming a grumpy old bastard.

So when you first worked with Foals, how did that come about?

I never thought I was going to earn any money out of art. I just did it because I liked it. I was doing Maths and Physics at A-Level – Maths, Physics and Art, that classic combination – and I thought ‘I’m gonna get stuck in some research lab somewhere’. So I went and did Art Foundation, but then didn’t get into university so I thought ‘fucking wankers’ and went and got a job as a bin man. I’d met some of the Foals boys on my Foundation course, so we became friends and I did some work for them before they were signed and one thing led to another. When I got into university, on my breaks I’d go back to the bins. Everyone else would have been off working at some trendy bar in Brighton or whatever, and I’d been away picking up other people’s shit. It’s such a different world, but it’s really good.

Everyone who does it is an ex-con or something. But there was this one guy, I got in the cab with him, and he looks me up and down. I’m like, ‘here we go, he looks mental.’ The guy says (adopts throaty, Scottish accent) “So, what do you do? You’re not doing this shit job, are you?” I was like “Yeah, well you are as well. How come I haven’t seen you before?” He says, “I’ve just been deported from Australia.” I’m like, ‘fuck me, I thought we sent our convicts over there, this fucker’s been sent back! So he says “what do you want to do with your life?” I said “I want to be an artist”. And he says “Oh aye? I did a photography degree in Salisbury.” And he knew more about art than anyone I’d ever met! This crazy old alcoholic guy who lived in a caravan. I think those times gave me a really good attitude, because I just felt so lucky when I started doing art and making some money.

It’s interesting hearing you talk about the commissions you’ve done, because in the past you’ve been pretty damning about shitty commercial art. Presumably you don’t feel you’ve had to make any compromises?

I’ve tried not to. I’ve been thrown in at the deep end, which I think is the best way, although I have been able to grow. It all seems quite busy right now, but there have been big gaps between projects. I’ll often go through spells of waking up on a Monday thinking ‘how the fuck am I gonna get some money?’ Because, although you do get paid well, it’s often few and far between, and if you do too many projects then you’re just gonna flood the market with stuff that hasn’t been thought through properly.

That’s why I’ve been doing more exhibitions. I got fed up with exhibitions because I’ve never sold a thing at one. So we did this a show at Electrowerkz behind Angel in London where I said ‘I’m gonna build a shed’. Everyone’s like ‘Tinhead, what the fuck you on about?’ I built this art shed, put loads of trees around it and hung work off it. I didn’t tell anyone, but I’d spoken to the promoter and said: “what I want to do is, halfway through I just wanna smash it all up.” I thought they’d say no way, but they said it was fine but forgot to tell the bouncers. So the security just thought it was some lunatic with a fucking crowbar smashing up an art display. I got collared straight away, although I did manage to destroy the thing in about a minute. Then I gave it all away, which was cool.

You refer to ‘we’ a lot, presumably you’re referring to Blessing Force?

Yes, that’s a community of artists and musicians in Oxford and we all muck in together. Some of the guys are more promotion-based, others are people like you (journalists), so all together we can make these things happen. It’s not like we make all the art together like a big happy family in the village hall. We work separately and then come together for these shows to make something interesting.

Does that make it easier for you to just play to your own strengths? Like you say, fine art shows aren’t exactly your natural environment.

They’re not really proper ‘fine art shows’, they’re just more fine art than I’ve been used to. The one at Modern Art Oxford was obviously more installation-based, whereas the other Blessing Force shows have been more of a gig, but with more to look at than just a sweaty back room with piss flowing out of the toilets. Sometimes at a gig you can look around and think, ‘this is a shit-hole,’ whereas we’d put a sculpture there. Happy sculpture! Do you think you can make a happy sculpture? Maybe I should make a happy sculpture and not be so fucking negative.

So you think of all your work as pretty negative?

It is negative inside, definitely. Although I seem quite a happy chappy, there’s definitely a lot of negativity in my brain. I guess that’s just the ‘artist’s suffering’ (laughs).

A lot of your work gives a real impression of spontaneity, even on some high-profile stuff like the cover of the Foals singles. Did you put pen to paper for pieces like that knowing where it would go?

Usually I’ll just get in a frame of mind and go from there. There are a lot of underlying issues to my character and my work. Basically, I’m a failed racing driver, and that’s what a lot of my art is about. But a lot of life is about taking these things and turning them into something positive. You can’t plan something like that. Often the inspiration comes from the process of doing it, so in a way you could say you planned it because you planned to follow on from the last thing you did. Sometimes I’ll just sit there for ages and try to think of something good to make, but at some point you’ve just got to punch yourself in the face and go and fucking make something, or take a photo. And the photo might be shit, but you might get a certain angle or something. You’ve just got to keep forcing yourself to make work.

It’s like Charles Bronson, the famous prisoner, said. I heard this story where Tom Hardy, who played him in the film, had like 30 missed calls, and eventually he picks it up and the voice goes (adopts low, menacing growl) “I gotcha, haven’t I?” He realises it’s Charles Bronson on the fucking phone. “You’re gonna be playing me in that film, aren’t you Tom?” He says, “I hope to, yeah.” Charles says “Tom – did you hear about the floods last year, Tom? The floods in Oxford? Did you hear about them, Tom?” Tom says, “Yeah, I heard about them.” “Did you hear about the boy who got his foot caught in a drain, Tom? And the water kept rising, and it kept rising? And the fire engine and police and everyone came Tom, to try and save this boy. But they couldn’t do anything. And the little boy drowned, Tom?” “Yeah, I heard about that.” “Well that wouldn’t have happened to me Tom, do you know why? Cause I’d have said (voice gets lower still) ‘fucking cut it off now.’ Moral of the story Tom, moral of the story. Sometimes you’ve got to cut a little bit of yourself away, no matter how much it hurts, in order to grow.” (laughs) He says, “Tom, what you having for tea?” “Steak.” “Ooooooh you caaaant!” Haha, yeah. So that’s what I’m trying to say. Sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice something to keep moving forward.

When you say that you are a failed racing driver, what’s the story there?

Basically I used to race. I wasn’t in the same class as Hamilton because he was slightly older, but I was with a lot of guys who are now F2 and Touring Car drivers and things … it’s all bitter shit I should probably get over as a grown man, but (grits teeth) YOU CAN’T HELP BUT HOLD ONTO THESE THINGS. I basically quit when I was about 15 cause I ran out of money, and you need money to do it. That’s the good thing about art, the less
money you have and the more pissed off you are – particularly for me – the easier it is. It’s then that you make things that aren’t for anyone else but yourself, and if you can do that and other people can connect with it than you’ve done something good.

I read something about your work being equated with outsider art, how do you feel about that?

Oh yeah! I thought that was funny. Because I was an artist working with a big design studio at the time, and I thought ‘I must be getting pretty commercial now.’ And it turns out everyone else is still thinking I’m a fucking nutcase. The definition of outsider art is normally someone who’s never had any formal training or has severe mental problems. I can’t always behave myself very well, so if I’m in a big board meeting with record executives I always think ‘what am I doing here?’ But in a way I like doing things like that, I actually got an office job for a while as a bit of a joke. My dad thinks I lie in bed all day and don’t do anything; when he comes to an art exhibition he’s always laughing because he thinks it’s the biggest collection of homosexual people he’s ever seen in one room. I’ll be like “Dad, look at this drawing” and he’ll say, “I wouldn’t want it on my wall.”

You’ve said that you would like to take more photos and work in film; do you think you’ll be able to express your style and personality through those media?

I made my first film, called I am a Man Making History for Blessing Force III. That was a good example of collaboration, where Pet Moon made the sound for it and I knew what I wanted to do visually, but I needed some help because I didn’t have the programmes and things. So I went to someone else’s studio for the evening, she helped me edit it a bit. Because I know what looks good, but I don’t know how to make every single button work. Yannis (Phillipakis, Foals singer/guitarist) said that it’s like a two- minute shot of the inside of my mind.

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Words: Geraint Davies

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