Succumb to the psychedelic ooze of Robert Beatty
As core member of Lexington, Kentucky noise icons Hair Police, Robert Beatty produces some of the most harrowing sonic filth ever committed to tape. After half an hour in the company of last year’s blissfully wretched comeback album Mercurial Rites, you might view the fluid, organic gush and clean, eerie lines of his artistic output as something of a respite.
This disparity is a source of intrigue in itself. To think that the same hands which contributed to the stomach-churning, exploitative trash of HP created the airbrushed kosmiche detail of his countless posters and album covers, and the degraded synth trials of his solo project Three Legged Race is difficult to comprehend. There is little to hold these projects together, bar an indefinable, inherent unctuousness, and the vagaries of the oft-misused adjective ‘psychedelic’.
In his musical output with Hair Police, Beatty fulfills the psychedelic template in its purest form; through achieving psychological transcendence via physical exploits. As an artist, Beatty addresses the aesthetic qualities more freely associated with the term, conjuring warped, flowing gasps of colour from all angles in fluid, retrofuturistic bursts.
While Beatty’s varied output has been gradually gathering momentum for some years, a clutch of recent pieces have drawn more widespread attention. In 2012, his dalliance with typography in the form of Peaking Lights’ Lucifer cover became an iconic image of the year’s releases, while last year the disconcerting formal ambiguity of his artwork for Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven saw his reputation grow further. After a long collaborative process between Beatty and Daniel Lopatin, the R Plus Seven cover was eventually selected as a still from Georges Schwizgebel’s 1982 animation Rapture of Frankenstein. While Beatty was initially unsure, the duo later, by serendipity, turned the image upside down and noted the figures ‘R+7’ amorphously formed in the shadows. “Once we saw the album title in the artwork, we knew we’d made the right move”, he says.
With his design for Glasgow collective The Phantom Band’s latest release Strange Friend currently receiving acclaim, Beatty’s album artwork remains in demand. Yet his artistic practice is constantly widening. In 2011 he embarked on his first solo exhibition, the multi-disciplinary Cream Grid Reruns, in his hometown’s 193 Gallery, while a collaborative sculptural installation with Eric Lanham entitled Intercepted Ruins comprising of holograms and video projections added further to his vast, fluid portfolio.
As all aspects of Beatty’s practice continues to confound and expand, we spoke to him about shifting headspaces and locating pastiche then devouring it whole.
Your practice is very wide ranging; you’re most recognised for your work with Hair Police, though Three Legged Race seems more in aesthetically in keeping with your art. Is there a particular project you consider your key expressive vehicle?
Hair Police is very much a group effort and is a representation of three individuals coming together, but I think everything I do fits together as a whole and works together if you could see it all, but I don’t expect anyone to be able to keep up with everything I do. I definitely view Three Legged Race and my solo work along with my personal art that I’ve done for installations, videos et cetera, to be my main focus and the best representation of what I’m doing. I have a hard time saying the work I do for record covers and music videos is truly mine since it’s commissioned for other people’s music and it’s often removed from what I would do on my own. But I think it fits into the larger picture.
What are the different sources of motivation for each side of your sonic output? Compared to Three Legged Race, Hair Police feels almost exploitative in its schlocky grimness. Is this light/dark aspect something you’re conscious of?
There is light and dark in all of it, be in it in the actual sounds or the intent behind it. Hair Police seems more grim on the surface, but there are elements of humor in there. The world is a fucked up place and if you can’t laugh you wont last very long.
How much has Krautrock influenced your work? There are clear visual nods to the covers of records released by labels Brain, Philips and Bacillus, but there are also references to Conrad Schnitzler in regards to Three Legged Race.
I’m not necessarily influenced by Krautrock, but I’m sure it’s seeped in there as I’ve listened to quite a bit of that music over the years. Most of that stuff is other people seeing what they want in my work. The Peaking Lights Lucifer cover has been seen as a direct reference to covers of Neu or Cluster records, which it most definitely was not. It works and is very possible, but that wasn’t the intent.
Are there any overarching themes that connect your art and music?
There is definitely a common thread that runs through it all, but I’d rather let other people see what they want to as it’s out of my control how people interpret my art. Much of my art has its roots in things that are viewed as trash or discarded, but I polish things a bit until they’re presentable. Not everyone wants their records decked out in absolute filth, so I’ve got to reign that in.
Much of your work feels overwhelmingly analogue, from the painterly aesthetic of your art to the way the music feels very organic in quite a grimy, industrial way. How important are digital production techniques to your process?
I am very much existing in the digital world and I’m surprised when people think I use an actual airbrush or record my records on tape. There is a good deal of blurring the lines and I use tons of analogue equipment, but everything ends up in the computer and is finalised there.
There’s a prevalent movement in populist music right now of a ‘psych revival’, which is largely based on rehashing a phased-out guitar sound without any reference to the ideas of psychological transcendence of the wider psychedelic movement. Do you have any feelings about the co-opting of the term?
I think anything can be good if done the right way, but much of the music that gets psychedelic these days doesn’t really do much for me. I think anything that doesn’t have the typical cliches of ‘psychedelic’ has the potential to be more so. Something that can take you out of the here and now is what I view as psychedelic.
How collaborative was the process of producing Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven artwork? Do you and Daniel Lopatin have a strong relationship?
I’ve known and worked with Daniel for several years on various projects. We tossed ideas back and forth for months while working on the artwork for R Plus Seven, so if was definitely a heavily collaborative endeavor. Daniel is actually pretty open to lots of different ideas, but he has a good eye and when he sees something that works he knows it.
That piece was a recreation of a still from Georges Schwizgebel’s animation Rapture of Frankenstein. What does that film, and that still in particular, mean to you?
I hadn’t seen the film prior to Daniel finding the still from it and showing it to me, although I had seen some of Schwizgebel’s earlier animations. That film is almost an archetype of late 70s and early 80s experimental art. It’s dark and very intense but playful and has elements of humor at the same time – much like some of my favorite art.
The airbrush technique is perhaps considered unfashionable, and in your Wire interview you spoke about a desire to avoid pastiche. Is this achieved by consciously avoiding taking in external influences, or by consciously observing other work and deviating from it?
I spend as much of my time researching and creating an archive of references to pull from as I do working. Whether that be watching a film, taking photographs, noticing the packaging on a bar of soap, or scouring the internet for images, it’s a big part of my process. I am always conscious of not making things a direct reference unless it’s explicitly stated or called for.
It’s easy to find elements of both neofuturism and the “retrofitted-futurism” of say, Blade Runner, in your work. Are these relevant notions?
I definitely like playing with those elements to create something that seems out of time or place. The present world we live in is futuristic enough, and more than anything I think I’m trying to emphasise that. Things are moving faster than you could ever fully take in and you can never keep up no matter how hard you try. I am huge fan of Phillip K. Dick’s books and he did an amazing job of making the futuristic seem mundane and vice versa. That said – I think Blade Runner is a pretty disappointing movie, it doesn’t really do much for me, so I’m definitely not referencing that. As far as Ridley Scott movies go, I’ll take Alien.