Artists Who Play Music

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Park People by Greer McGettrick

In Conversation with Shannon Shaw, Greer McGettrick and Hannah Lew

Some musicians shred their instruments. Some make striking visual art, too. Three modern examples include Hannah Lew of the bands Cold Beat and Grass Widow, Shannon Shaw of Shannon and the Clams, and Greer McGettrick, previously singer-guitarist of the ferocious The Mallard, and a revolving member of other bands like Carletta Sue Kay, Cold Beat and FRONDS.

In addition to playing bass, Hannah helps run two independent record labels and shoots films. She’s screened her work at the San Francisco Video Festival, Theatre Arteau and SFMOMA. A sample of her music videos include The Mantles’ “Hello,” King Tuff’s “Alone and Stoned” and Hunx’s “Private Room,” all of which belong on your playlist. Cold Beat put out its first full album in July, and she designed the cover and shot three videos for it. If you’re going to release a record on your own label, you might as well design the whole thing.

Even before retiring The Mallard in April 2013, Greer had been making woodcut prints and silkscreens. She’s used a number of her prints on concert posters for her band and others, including White Fence, Habibi and Thee Oh Sees. The print she made for Woolen Men would look like it belonged in the swinging sixties if it weren’t so modern and original. It took her two layers of paint and about a week of work, and it needs to be on an unbranded billboard─just boom, enjoy this, it’s for you, not Coke or blue jeans. Once she transcribed Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury by hand and hung the pages as a thirty-five inch by sixty-five foot installation at the Michael Rosenthal Gallery in San Francisco because, why not? The first record by her newest musical project, ELINE COUT, is a collection of soundscapes called 13 pieces.

Shannon Shaw is a bass player and singer whose rich, gravelly voice you will always recognize once it graces your ears. In addition to playing in Shannon and the Clams, she plays with Seth Bogart in Hunx and His Punx, and played in Ty Segall’s one-off cover band The Togas. She also draws and paints. She painted Mark Bolan’s face. She painted the cover of Nobunny’s second album, First Blood. Another painting appears on the cover of the I Need You Bad compilation, which features Burnt Ones, Warm Soda, Sonny & the Sunsets and The Sandwitches. She’s shown some of her work in Bay Area galleries, including a show with Greer at a venue called Vacation.

So, how do they do it? When do they do it? Does their music influence their visual art and their visual art influence their music? They kindly agreed to share their thoughts and stories.

Right now, San Francisco is an expensive metro area growing prohibitively more expensive. Somehow, the music coming out of it remains some of the country’s best, though with the high-tech boom (to quote the band POW!) and the exodus of many musical residents, who knows for how much longer. The title of the San Francisco Is Doomed comp makes a guess, and it plays off of Crime’s 1979 punk album, illustrating how boom and doom are longstanding parts of the city’s lifecycle, from real estate to art, on down through the unstable substrate. Oakland is its own animal, and it’s thriving in response. For now, these Bay Area artists are fortunate enough to live in a lively creative community where they can collaborate on projects with so many other musicians on both sides of the water.

Shannon was on tour in Australia and Spain, Hannah and Greer busy playing and traveling, so the group traded the immediacy of phone conversation for a rolling email exchange. When you work in multiple mediums, sometimes you do a blazing live show, and sometimes you curate a virtual gallery of thoughts on Gmail.

Aaron Gilbreath

I.  FLEETING QUALITY / INSTANT CONNECTION

BLVR: Do you think of yourselves as musicians first, visual artists second, or is that an arbitrary, unproductive division to impose?

HANNAH LEW: Although I admire people who specialize in one thing and are defined by that skill, I am not one of those people. I don’t feel like one medium satisfies my creative needs or has the ability to express my feelings/ideas 100%, so I make space for varied artistic practices. Music feels like the most direct practice in terms of accessing and communicating my feelings, so I guess I prioritize that form. Visual art is another language altogether, though video making can be pretty similar to songwriting. The process has a different flavor of catharsis.

GREER McGETTRICK: I’ve struggled with the semantics of using “artist” and “musician” for a while now. I tend to consider myself an artist that plays music. I think music can be another medium of art or craft based more in technique and theory. I consider that I express my emotions better in music and my thoughts more in visual art. Lately I’ve been learning cello and reading music for the first time. Ideally, when I get to know the instrument better, I’d like to compose with cello. 

SHANNON SHAW: I feel like a generally creative being that naturally gets into something new all the time. I guess I am riding a music wave currently but that may come and go. I often revisit themes or methods from the past when I get into a new medium but ultimately want my art to be ever changing. I fully agree with Hannah on feeling as though one medium cannot satiate her creative needs. I also find that I handle most daily human tasks in a “creative” way because that is what works for my brain. Communicating, cooking, planning, exercising, traveling, etc. I find that I approach most of these things in a similar way to how I approach writing a song or painting a portrait.  

BLVR: Which have you been doing longer: playing music or the other?

HL: I always wrote songs as a kid but didn’t learn an instrument until I was twenty-three or so. I spent most of my life thinking I was a painter, but I think I am more suited for film and music work.

GM: My mom studied painting and photography in college and has always been very supportive. When I was a child, she made sure I always had some creative outlet. My dad was a musician. I grew up hearing scales and arpeggios on woodwinds. When I was fifteen I started learning my favorite records on his bass.

SS: I have probably been drawing longer, although I remember making up songs as a kid, maybe starting at five when I would get sent to my room. They would be super sad and melodramatic about how no one loves me, and I’m secretly a princess and shit like that. I always wanted to play an instrument but wasn’t allowed to. Neither I nor my mom knows why she wouldn’t let me. I, like Hannah, taught myself bass at around age 25. Perhaps that’s why we both have such funky, cool bass style.

BLVR: How did each of you get into painting, printing and video work, respectively?

HL: I mostly did visual art as a child and young adult. I studied Fine Art in college. I moved away from home to NYC when I was 17. I had a Super 8 camera with which I shot film, but I didn’t actually edit anything together until I was twenty-five or so. I think I felt limited to the identity of a visual artist and didn’t allow myself to branch out into other mediums. I didn’t pick up a bass until I was twenty-three. I didn’t exactly have my personal tools yet to have the follow-through of editing a film, or really starting a band, and it wasn’t until I was twenty-three or so that I started feeling the need to finish a film and prove to myself that I could accomplish that. Prior to that, my artistic process usually involved a more solitary studio environment and a lot of struggling with layers of oil paint and collage pieces, and layers of silkscreens.

Living in NY, I felt a little put off by the art world. It seemed the galleries were on the outskirts of town, sort of ghetto-ized in Chelsea as a destination spot. Something about the gallery world tradition of walking up to a wall and staring at work seemed like a mediated experience to me after a while. I started to feel like music and film were mediums I wanted to explore more because they were more accessible and didn’t include having a lot of money to own a piece, needing a pretense of understanding about art history, or anything. Pretty much everyone in the world can instantly lock in to a song or film. Those mediums are moving just like real life, and that fleeting quality seems to leave room for an instant connection.

I’ve never been someone that fits in, and for me, hiding out in my studio lifestyle was tough—because I already struggled with deep feelings of isolation and can be a real hermit. Even now—when I’m at a point in my life where my art lends itself towards being social—I still find myself spending most of my time alone. It’s just my way. I guess at a certain point I realized that I wanted to make work that allowed me to connect with people more easily, and that was available to everyone. I enjoy going to museums and galleries, but in terms of making work, I find filmmaking and music-making more satisfying. I use my visual art for flyers, album art, etc., and also I think my years of painting influence my sense of composition when designing videos. So I’m glad to have that visual artist experience. I also made a small body of collages that were included in the Let’s Start a Pussy Riot book that came out last year, so that project gave me an excuse to make some visual works for the first time in a while.

GM: I took a printmaking class in college. I was really drawn to the idea of being able to print multiples or print another edition later. It takes away the preciousness of having only one final piece like a painting, not to mention the reluctance of parting with it later.

HL: That’s true: printmaking is similar to using art for album art, in the sense that everyone can take one home. These days I would say all my visual art is that kind of work that anyone can take home, whether it be a silkscreened album cover or a video. 

//player.vimeo.com/video/69482966

The Mantles - Hello from Slumberland Records on Vimeo.

SS: Oil paint was a requirement for my junior year of high school AP art class. I was really worried about this because we couldn’t afford to go buy a set like the other students, but luckily for me, my dad heard on Swap Shop (a trading radio program on our local radio station) that a guy had some oil paints for sale. It was this elderly, mute couple way out in the country that were trying to get rid of all their art supplies. For $20 I got a huge tub of really old Bob Ross oil paint (like 50 tubes at least), all kinds of linseed oil, mediums, brushes, galkyd, varnish, and even some canvasses. It took me years to figure out how to use everything, and the deeper into the bin I dug, the more amazing, weird shit I found. My favorite mysterious prize was a Tupperware case with sealing layers that contained watercolors, matches, white chalk and a handmade color wheel. I am now a watercolor painter and still want to understand why those items were packed together. I am still so obsessed with this box that I take it out every now and then and try and make a piece of art using all four items. Anyway, when I went to art college, it was required to use only watercolor for illustration courses the first year. This was really scary to me because I finally felt comfortable with oils and felt too afraid to move onto a new medium that I associate with children’s art, vineyard landscapes and bored housewife pet portraits. I have been humbled, thank goodness. I learned that pretty much any method I have ever learned for any other medium can be applied to watercolor. You can use mistakes to your advantage, or be a perfectionist and completely plan your outcome. Watercolor is easily transported, dries quickly and can be insanely expressive with minimal application. I feel like I think in watercolor now when I look at things. I constantly visually assess things without realizing and think to myself about what hues someone’s undereye is made of, or how many shades of blue I can see in someone’s skin or hair. It’s like painting is another way for me to fully grasp my surroundings. 

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Girls Just Wanna Have Fur by Shannon Shaw

II. GIVING THE PATTERNS FORM

 BLVR: Shannon, it’s interesting to hear what happened when you got over your watercolor bias. Bob Ross—rest his tree-painting soul—did kind of make the medium seem less serious. (I almost bad-punned by saying “give it a negative tint.”) Your experience shows one of the benefits of going to art school: it can force you try to something new, outside your comfort zone. What do you all think are the other pros and cons of art school? Thoughts about the benefits of what people teach you and what you learn yourself?

HL: I got a lot out of going to college and learning about art history. It is basically a history of humans synthesizing our world. I loved reading philosophy books in a class and having the space to dissect pieces of art and literature that I wouldn’t have understood as deeply if I had come to those things on my own. I feel strongly about semiotics and am glad to have expanded my visual vocabulary in school. I think art and music deal in this language that is very important to how we process the world as humans. I think there is still room for an exploration of symbols, and I use symbolism and imagery a lot in my work, both sonic and otherwise. I’m actually surprised at how often I refer to fine art and mythology when I’m creating things. I’m also glad to have learned different techniques and skills with different painting, printmaking and film mediums, but on the flip side I am glad to not have any musical training whatsoever. I have no idea what notes I’m playing or what scales I’m writing in, but I am able to explain ideas. I never felt empowered to play instruments as a young lady, so I just learned on my own and came up with my own way of playing. I guess I was too stubborn to have my boyfriend teach me. That just didn’t sound fun. Through years of writing songs with my own weird technique and approach, I now have a way that I play that is all my own. I definitely had to fight a bit to find my power in music, but I’m grateful for that. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have attended girls’ rock camp or something. But I think learning to assert myself and stand by my weird technique and approach has made me the musician that I am. When I play music with people I am always interested to see how people think about notes, scales and other patterns. But everything I write is in my own internal logic and that is where I feel creative.

BLVR: Hannah, so being self-taught can liberate you from preexisting knowledge and free you to think creatively in unique ways─not knowing the notes you’re playing, for instance. I wonder if part of the benefit of going to school is the way you work with other students, in the same way you mentioned that playing with other musicians and seeing how they think about scales and notes is really helpful. That’s one thing musicians have that lots of visual artists and writers don’t have: the chance to make things collaboratively with other people!

GM: While I respect and can appreciate art school—Hannah, your explanation of being able to discuss and dissect to form a deeper understanding makes me envious in some ways—I’m hit with a tinge of mistrust for academia. It all boils down to the experience you have with the professor and your peers. I think we’ve all had teachers that piss us off so much that the only thing they’ve succeeded in teaching us is how to be demoralized, or how to successfully survive in a vacuum of bureaucracy. I’ve played with the idea of going to art school. I appreciate that vacuum, the deadlines, the discussion, peer crits, and wonderful relationships and collaborations with like-minded people. But I’m not a fan of debt and jaded or authoritarian professors. I often find myself fantasizing about going to art school when I’m really frustrated with my own work. About four months after I broke up my band The Mallard I found myself feeling really dejected with my own process: I felt like I was failing at everything I was attempting. (Hannah has a great visual example of a creativity cycle that I really identify with.) I was bored, and I really don’t like to be bored because it leads to a lot of self-doubt and self-criticism. (And this boredom is cyclical.) I thought that the only logical way to get myself to create again was to attend CCA, get a few years of art school under my belt and regenerate my passion. I started applying and got an academic advisor and felt like I was about to go into a convent and give up on my own process; trade in my somewhat scrappy techniques for a proper education. And then I decided: no, this doesn’t feel right, I can give myself art school. I started asking friends that majored in Fine Art about their experience. They were glad they had gone, but told me it took them years to break away from the singular styles and techniques they were forced to learn. I realized that boredom, while frustrating, is essential part of the cycle. John Cage has a lot of really great insight on what it is to feel bored. I wrote my academic advisor a really condescending letter that I call My Rejection Letter to CCA and it’s been a bit of a manifesto (there’s a picture of a copy on my tumblr). Of course my own curriculum is really sub-par to what CCA could offer. I’m lucky enough to know a few artists in San Francisco that have given me advice on my drawing, reading lists and constructive criticism. But what this all really means to me is, I don’t need the approval of peers or pros as I did ten years ago, I certainly don’t need years of debt, and I get to decide what and how I learn. I have enough self-discipline and passion to pursue knowledge, and if I need a helping hand I can always take a class at City College. I also agree that being self-taught can open unexpected doors and lead you down some unique avenues. I think it’s similar to Hannah’s approach toward music.

Hannah, I remember having a really great discussion with you when I first started playing in COLD BEAT about how I was concerned, but mostly intrigued that you didn’t know the names of the notes or the (I’m just going to call it) “common language” that I was used to in other bands. I was worried we’d be communicating with such a different vocabulary. But really it translated very well. E is E; a quarter note is a quarter note; whatever you call it. It’s quite subjective, but the way in which those parts come together to give a song its own feel and movement is universal. It ties into the way that we express ourselves in daily life.

HL: Here are the cycles Greer was referring to:

SATISFACTION

BOREDOM

DOUBT

CHANGE

DESTRUCTION

COMPULSION

DISARRAY

DEPRESSION

HOPE

ACTION

HAPPINESS

I’ve also noticed this cycle, which is less about process and more about performance:

CONFIDENCE

ARROGANCE

DOUBT

SELF LOATHING

NARCISSISM

TRANSCENDANCE OF EGO

INNER PEACE

SATISFACTION 

It comforts me to understand my own process a bit and give myself a break when I feel compulsive or destructive. I am basically always at one of these points on a cycle (both lists are actually cycles and should be written in a circle because happiness leads to satisfaction and so forth). I think I actually wrote these cycles down to help me understand my process a little better. 

SS: I felt humbled by art school, which for me is a huge pro. I went in there thinking I had a clear idea of all these things I was good at, and told myself I would never need to bother trying certain things. Yes, the school forces you to try lots of things you don’t like, and that expands your mind and abilities. I am proud to have basic knowledge of things I don’t focus on but still love like video-editing, book-making, casting, metal working, various types of sculpting, art history, etc. All these things I thought weren’t important proved to make me better at what I love doing. I agree with Hannah that I am happy to have gone but love certain aspects of my creative world being self taught. I don’t want vocal lessons, I don’t want bass lessons, because that would have changed what I created too much. If I ended up taking classes on those, I believe they would affect my musical work too much. Shannon and the Clams wouldn’t be Shannon and the Clams if I was pro at singing and bass rippin’. I also don’t think things would be interesting anymore if I ever came to a point where I knew all there was to know of a craft.

I love what Greer was saying about being an autodidact. That is such a desirable quality, especially in this day and age! I can’t stress enough the importance of being around others and how teachers and fellow students helped me grow as a multi-talented human BUT some people like Greer don’t need that. It’s also insanely important to teach yourself! Take yourself on that lonely journey. I really wish I did that. I feel like there are different ways of being an artist—one of them is to be someone who cannot turn their creative mind off and must keep creating and their work continues to grow through doing (like Greer) and someone who flourishes through guidance/boundaries/rules/deadlines (me). I don’t know why, but if I am restricted in some way, my brain figures out how to make do with what I’ve got. I’m a lot more creative in a kitchen with limited supplies than with an endless pantry. I’ve seen Hannah live in both worlds. On music video sets, I have seen her push her very clear vision to a bunch of people who don’t see how it’s possible until it’s done (and amazing) as well as seen an idea not work and she just shrugs and shits out another clever idea right before your eyes and it works brilliantly.

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Chris Farley by Shannon Shaw

BLVR: Shannon, I love the idea that your brain is wired in a way that means you approach day to day things creatively. Can you describe what that process looks like when you approach cooking or traveling that way? Can you paint a picture?

SS: I was afraid you were gonna ask me that! I guess in some ways cooking is like making a painting for me because I’m keeping in mind timing and future and final product. With watercolor painting, you have to think ahead a lot, think of how long something will take to dry, or how long you can keep paint on the page wet in order to keep working into it. You have to leave certain spots white and completely reserve them for later because if you lose your white before you’re ready, there’s no way to reproduce a pure clean white later with watercolor. That reminds me of the careful timing with eggs for something like a soufflé or meringue. Also creating harmony and balance in a dish is just like thinking of mixing color or creating color schemes, or making skin tones. What can you add to dull something down? To make something sing? To give something depth or vibrancy? Garlic! Yellow ochre! Ginger! Prussian blue! With traveling I am anticipating what needs to be done and guessing how certain things I might do may affect me. Planning out distances for daily travel, weekly, hourly, what I’m gonna need while I’m there, what I’m gonna pack. All this planning is to ensure a particular outcome. Now all this is making me sound like a mega planner or control freak, when honestly I’m not. I’m a real fly by the seat of my pants sort of lad.

BLVR: Shannon, you don’t sound like a control freak. You sound like you prepare wisely and then adapt along the way. That’s an effective combo. (Whenever I chop vegetables, I see how I arrange them on the board and approach the chopping, and I feel both creative and totally anal retentive.) So what do you think about the creative cycles Hannah laid out? Do those fit your own life? And Hannah, when did you recognize these cycles clearly enough to write them down?

HL: Hmm, I’m not sure when exactly I had the clarity to write down those cycles. It was sort of an Aha! moment that I jotted down in my notebook. I try to find ways to not be hard on myself when I am in the downswing of a creative cycle, so I think actually trying to give those patterns form and write them down was good for me. Like most creative people, I deal with depression and try to take it easy on myself when I am feeling low and just recognize it as a necessary part of a creative cycle. 

SS: Some of those terms really work for me but my cycle is always different. I go through lots of those negative feelings while working and don’t feel satisfaction till the art is far away from me. I try and give myself breaks, like Hannah is saying, but I work best at the last minute so rarely have the time to give myself what I truly need/deserve.

BLVR: Greer, you do a lot of woodcuts. What is it about that medium that attracts you, and can you describe the process for those of us who love how it looks but have never done it ourselves? 

GM: I get really crap ¼" ply from a hardware store. (I know that there is great wood that ideal for woodcut online, but I like the cheap stuff). I draw a mirrored image onto the ply keeping in mind I can’t put too much detail into it when I carve. I use a V-gauge and two width of U-gauges to carve away the areas that aren’t going to print. Sometimes the wood looks fine on the surface but peels, chips or breaks into the layer of ply underneath like a sinkhole. If that happens, I curse and move on.  Then with a brayer, I roll on ink, place the paper over the image and emboss the back of the paper with the back side of a wooden spoon. Every once in a while, if I’m doing a large edition I find a flatbed press which gets a really consistent print and takes a fraction of the time. That’s the simplest way to explain it; there are other techniques involving multiple layers, prints and registration. 

BLVR: Can you talk about the Woolen Men poster?

GM: The Woolen Men poster is a two layer block print. The first layer is the color of their faces and the second layer is the black ink. I’m not sure how much time it took, maybe a little less than a week. Because it’s relief, everything that is white (or without ink) is carved out, so most of the work was taking out the area in between and around the faces. I usually draw out and carve the layer that will have the most information first and then transfer that to another block, but for this piece I started with just the shape of the face and transferred it to the second block and worked out the characteristics without drawing from pictures or referencing people I knew. It was my intent to experiment with different expressions and angles and later see if by chance any of them resemble the faces of friends. I’ve had a few people say, “oh, that’s clearly me,” and though it wasn’t intended, there are a few characteristics that really resemble friends (minus a few broken noses and missing eyes─I carve on pretty inexpensive plywood, sometimes a feature just breaks off).

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Woolen Men by Greer McGettrick

BLVR: Besides The Mallard, Thee Oh Sees and Woolen Men, what other bands did you do posters for?

GM: I’m horrible at documentation; I move or I do a massive clean and I throw out old work I’m not happy with in that moment. I’ve done a lot of posters, but I don’t have the prints or the blocks anymore. I like to do originals for posters rather than making photocopies. I’ve hand-painted a lot of really large posters on newsprint and wheat-pasted them around San Francisco. It grabs your attention more than a quick photoshop job printed on an 8/12 x 11 or an online invitation. Those were fun because they’re going to be covered up or taken down really quickly so the poster only has some much of a life, just as the show is only one night. It kind of goes back to having something appear as precious or ephemeral.

BLVR: The idea that ephemerality can make certain things more beautiful or more moving is really fascinating. Like you said, that effect is so evident in live music. The show’s only one night. So is a live guitar solo, or Charlie Parker’s legendary sax solos—they happen, they blow a few peoples’ minds, then they’re gone forever. I love that. Part of what’s empowering and unfortunate about our era is our ability to document everything: photograph it, record it, post it, share it. Our technological abilities are incredible but also a bit tragic. So many of us try to preserve everything. Should we? But with poster art, you embrace ephemerality. Can you talk about that? How does that bump up against the idea you described of being able to print multiples or other editions? If reprints take away a thing’s preciousness of having only one final piece, do you just reserve the one-offs for posters?  

GM: First, a rant: I recently de-activated my Facebook.  I am over belonging to a fantasy world, I’m over watching people documenting, sharing, liking.  If you’re watching a band play, and you’re so concerned with documenting it, you’re not actually there, you’re not focusing on those amazing moments that can exist for less than a second, your other senses are begging for that experience and you’ve willingly neglected the present and the ability to use your memory. I’m really worried about the state of our society that lives behind a phone screen. We don’t yet know the consequences of all this technology. That which is “easier” and quicker isn’t not necessarily better. I agree, incredible, yet tragic.

The ephemeral: So, being able to print as many woodcuts as I like, it takes the preciousness away, but it also gives me the ability to make as many as I like and give them to people that want them. I think when promoting a show, you’re trying to get the word out to as many people as you can. Social networks make that so easy that an event request has become so mundane and easily ignorable. But remember walking by a cafe and seeing a really great poster in the window that it makes you stop and look at it, oh goddamn it, you’ve ruined it by taking a picture and uploading it to Instagram. Before that, the moment of genuine curiosity, possibly even a moment of being captivated—that’s something I’d like to hold on to. So printmaking, tempura paint on large sheets of paper, wheatpastes etc. are just the means to make an edition that you can spread them about, they’ll only be up for a few weeks and then give them to friends when the event is done. That was the initial idea. 

III. TRUTH-TELLING BY WAY OF TELLING LIES

BLVR: Would-be novelists frequently write in coffee shops. It seems musicians can record wherever there’s some reliable equipment and wherever they can get their head in it. Where do you do your visual art: home? Studio? On the fly?

GM: I think that when something strikes me, I try to document it as quickly as possible. If it’s more of a concept or idea, I can write it in my notebook. If it’s a riff of a song and I’m walking around, I can record it on my phone, but often I just allow myself time to write music on a 4-track. It’s more of a matter of convincing myself in the moment that it’s a good idea and deserves the energy to expand.  If I’m in a good mood, I find I’m more apt to expand idea and let inspiration come than kill it, it’s really lack of confidence that kills an idea the quickest.

HL: I have a notebook that I jot visual ideas in and I usually storyboard in that notebook when I’m creating a video. I also have lyric ideas ongoing in that same notebook. Then I usually make a storyboard on the computer that is share-able with other people so I can better explain the idea and have a common reference point for shots. I tend to hum ideas all the time into my phone and then make demos at home that can be shared with the band for fleshing out/arrangement purposes. So, I guess I have a built in filtration system with my process in both worlds.

SS: My ideal space would be a studio where other people are silently working, with couches and an outdoor area for frequent breaks. I need the other peoples’ focus to inspire me. Also, being in a serious environment keeps me serious! I have been painting in my room for my last couple of art shows, and it’s very hard for me to deal with the task at hand. I always bring with me on tour the “Entertainment bag.” It is full of paper, pencils, watercolors and torn-out pictures from magazines that I keep for pallet ideas, or images to draw from. Let’s just say, I don’t ever use it.  

BLVR: Do you sketch ideas at work? Or go straight home to make stuff? (Brigid Dawson, from Thee Oh Sees, said that many of her paintings and sewn art are “the direct result of a whole lot of time spent in the back of a van, dreaming.”)

GM: If it’s art, I sometimes draw while thinking of ideas, but I rarely sketch as a means of preparation for a final product. If it’s music and I’m trying to write a song with verse/chorus/lyrics, I’ll demo the hell out of it and shape it until I record it in a studio.

One of the few things I miss about touring is adapting to the long van rides. Blissfully staring out the window, or letting myself be carried away by a string of thoughts, was really enjoyable. The rule usually goes: whoever is driving gets to pick the music; I’d often just turn it off. I don’t give myself the time to be lost in my mind the way I could on a long drive.

HL: I have to record an idea right when it comes or I will forget it—like the moment a dream leaves your mind—so sometimes I will be looking like a real crazy lady singing into my phone in a grocery store or other public place. Sometimes even a tour van. 

SS: I have notebooks all over my room, in my car, in my purse, at my mom’s house. I’m constantly adding to lists. My wall is covered with scraps of paper of said lists to remind me of ideas, images, compositions, art to look up, music videos to watch, fabrics, gem stones, great hair to paint, and things to remember while painting. Basically, my art starts with months of weird notes that I surround myself with. It’s helpful!

BLVR: Musicians often get asked about their musical influences, but what visual artists do you find really interesting or engaging? People whose work that gets your creative motor going?

GM: I’m so wrapped up in practicing cello that I haven’t really been focusing on art lately. It’s hard to say what is influencing me as a visual artist right now. I’m a bit of a monomaniac; I’ll consume myself in one thing, but it’s difficult to change gears. Other than practicing cello, right now I’m printing 100 album covers that are a combination of woodcut and silkscreen. It’s for Pretty Penny, a local label that only releases short runs of 100 albums where all the artwork has to be unique, so the woodcut is a grid of one-hundred 1" squares.  Sequentially each album has one square taken away in the grid, the last album will have no squares. Subtractive. The project is called ELINE COUT. This release is called 13 pieces; they are soundscapes that I wrote about a year ago.

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A Cat by Greer McGettrick

HL: Some of my favorite stuff, which has definitely worked its way into my personal mythology, is the work Man Ray and Lee Miller made together, and the work Man Ray made about missing her. I love futurism and dada and surrealism, and much of that stuff makes its way into my art, music and film work. I also love film work by Stan Brackage, Norman McLaren, and Jean Cocteau, to name a few. 

SS: I love the Symbolist paintings from the turn of the century. A lot of illustrators for fairy tales and other children’s books were part of the Symbolists or Pre-Raphaelites. A lot of the work from them is allegorical, or telling a whole story in one piece. I love looking at a piece and seeing little secrets hidden inside of it, or when an artist pulls off a really powerful second read. I get a real thrill out of being tricked or guided by art. Judith and Holofernes by Gustave Klimt is a great example of that. Jacek Malczewski, Edmund Dulac, Andrew Detmold: I look up all these artists when I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.

BLVR: Tell me about some of your favorite pieces that you’ve made, paintings, drawings, anything. Where you just got it right.

HL: It’s hard to say what it means to “get it right.” Sometimes I will make something and feel like it was unsuccessful, but then it will resonate with people and surprise me. This also happens the other way around, where I make something that I think is the best thing I’ve ever done and nobody gives a fuck.

BLVR: How about showing your art, or helping people find it? Greer, you have a Tumblr with a number of your pieces on display. Hannah has a website collecting her videos. What’s it like displaying your work at a gallery, the way you and Shannon did, Greer?

SS: I am terrible at documenting my art. I have a website, but I think I’m gonna switch to Tumblr. I feel like my mind is at max capacity at email! I think it’s incredibly important to find a way to keep it visually available though. I sell some through the Shannon and the Clams page, which is so far a success, but I need to do my own thing.

BLVR: Why make art? Or really, why make anything? Do we make it for ourselves, the makers, or is it for us and for the viewers, the listeners? 

HL: I wish I knew. For me, it is a compulsion. I can’t stop making things. I often feel a channel for songs that exist out there in the ether that my ear is picking up on, like radio waves, and I feel a sense of duty to bring them to life. I think abstracting on our reality and making our own shapes out of our feelings and responses to our world is vital to our understanding. If we don’t include our emotional responses to things into our vocabulary about our temporal existence, we can’t really move forward as a society. You can get away with confronting a lot of taboo subject matter within the realm of abstraction and reproduction that you can’t in normal dialogue. There is a lot of truth telling by way of telling lies, which is all an artist is really ever doing.

Aaron Gilbreath is a West Coast essayist and journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Paris Review, Oxford American, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Apology, Virginia Quarterly Review and Vice, and he wrote the musical appendix to The Oxford Companion to Sweets. Find him @AaronGilbreath