Whitehead, Paul (August 2005)

An Interview With Paul Whitehead

Genesis - Nursery CrymePaul Whitehead is a painter who was the perpetrator of the classic covers of the genre-defining 70s Genesis albums such as Foxtrot, Nursery Cryme and Trespass, amongst many others over the past 30 years. After contacting Mr. Whitehead for an article I was (and still am) working on, I decided to see what he's up to. Turns out he's got his fingers in a fair few number of pies?

George Heron: What are you up to nowadays?

Borg Symphony - Ode To Hero TixePaul Whitehead: Well I'm still painting and doing record covers commissions and I'm also in a band called the Borg Symphony. We're in the middle of that. We've finished all the recording in it, just gotta do all the recording. I call it a cyber rock opera. It's all about cyborgs you know, half-human, half-robot beings. The story is about a hero and you follow his journey. I'm shooting videos for a back-projection that will be part of a live show. You should check out our site borgsymphony.com. All the characters have these metal masks. Everybody in the band wears a mask of some kind.

GH: What do you play in the band?

PW: I play the cymbal with a violin bow. I also play the Theremin. The Theremin is a very strange electronic instrument like a little box with one end as a metal wand like an antenna and on the other side is a metal ring, and you play it by moving your hand closer or further away from the vertical antenna.

GH: Ah that's the one that goes WEEEEEEEE OO WEEEEEEEEEE OO. [My imitation sounded better than it looks in text]

PW: Yeah that's the one. Very hard to play. Because it's all about feel, there isn't any frets or anything. You have to know exactly where the electrical field is, the field around those two things. You stick your hand in this field and by moving it you change the pitch and the volume. You've gotta have perfect pitch, that's the most important thing. So I play that. I've got a hard drive with 16 gigs of sound. I do these live mixes, kinda hard to explain; they are stories within the story of the Borg. I've got a state-of-the-art sound library given to me by a friend of mine in LA and it's got all these sounds from movies, so if I want a spaceship flying across the screen I've got the perfect Star Trek version of that, so it's kind of cool, as I'm playing with some great musicians. Some great volunteers who have said if you are making music I want to get involved in it and they like the concept. The concept being, what kind of music would cyborgs make? And they've responded to that.

GH: So this is a solo concept that you've come up with yourself?

PW: Yeah. I wrote a script with songs, narration and the whole thing and I gave it out to everybody and they responded really well to it. Saying, "Oh yes I can see us doing this and that." I've even have dancers who want to work with me. So we're planning to get it all done by the beginning of July. [George and Paul spoke in April -ed] 'Cause we're going to a festival called NEARFest and I'm going to be painting a piece live with Le Orme. I've been working with these guys 30 years; I did their first cover in '74, I think it was, and we're almost like brothers. So when we get up on stage I feel like part of the band. So I'll be painting while they play. I've got 2 hours and I'm going to do their record cover.

GH: How long does it take to paint a record cover on average?

PW: Erm, usually about a week or so. I take a bit of time planning it out, send sketches backwards and forwards until we get exactly what everyone wants. Depending on the detail, it can take anything from a week, sometimes 2.

GH: So you'll really be pushing yourself up on that stage then?

PW: It's a bigger version, so I'll draw it out on the canvas before I start. Draw all the major elements out. It's essentially easier to paint bigger, yeah, because you can take more chances and from a distance it looks the same. Yeah, I did one at a festival in Baja [BajaProg] in Mexico with a band called ?clat, a French band, and we only had an hour and 20 minutes. It was a real adrenaline rush, had to get this thing done and only had so long to do it, so you're thinking on your feet.

GH: You got it completed in the end then?

PW: Yeah it worked out good. There were a couple of encores that gave me that little bit of extra time.

GH: What's the latest artwork for an album you've done?

TimeDivers cover art (© Paul Whitehead; courtesy)PW: I've just finished one for an English band in Shropshire called TimeDivers. I really like the name of the band. It inspired me. It's one of these spacey things; two guys, they're like falling through space with their arms spread open and they're falling into a galaxy and in the middle of the galaxy, there is a clock. It's kinda crazy to describe.

[Click image to see larger version]

GH: What's your favourite piece of artwork that you have created?

PW: That's a tough one ? Gee, I don't know; I don't really have one, you know.

GH: You have a little bit of love for all of them do you?

PW: No. Actually, once I paint them, they're gone, people buy them. I have copies of them on film and in a file but I let them go; I guess it's the image that I'm selling at the moment is my favourite. That's the answer to your question.

GH: [Laughs] What artists influence your work?

PW: Well I like Rene Magritte, Belgian surrealist. He is my favourite painter of all time. I went to his house in Brussels about 2 years ago when I was in Europe on a trip and hunted down his house. It's a museum now. It was really nice to see the rooms that he made these paintings in. I think the artist I like as more of a philosopher of art is Marcel Duchamp. He's more of a philosopher of art who set down all the rules. He'd say there's no reason why you should do this, it's all art. He was a really smart guy, very tongue-in-cheek stuff as well. And I like some of the older guys like Raphael and the Spanish painter Velasquez. I've got a great affection for Botticelli.

GH: Are you a collector?

PW: Not really; I collect friends' stuff you know. I don't buy art as an investment. I've got some nice pieces, mainly stuff that has sentimental value, when I've been involved when the piece was made. With a lot of artists I'll do collaboration. That's always fun, to work with another artist as you try different ways and you both work different ways. I've never been asked what my favourite piece of art is before. I'll have to have a think about that.

GH: What bands do you listen to nowadays?

PW: I'm a very big Floyd fan.

GH: Do you think they're ever going to bring out a new album?

PW: No, I think it's over. Well you've got 2 different factions now haven't you? Maybe Gilmour will bring out an album and Roger Waters will bring out an album, But I don't think they'll ever play together [bear in mind this interview was conducted before Live 8 and their triumphant performance - GH]. There's too much animosity there.

GH: Do you not think its proper Floyd without Waters?

PW: I lost interest in them, yeah. Momentary Lapse Of Reason was the album where I thought, "Yeah, that's enough of that!" That was the last album I bought of theirs. But the other day I bought again, Wish You Were Here, Animals, new CD versions. I like Porcupine Tree.

GH: So you got their new album?

PW: No. what's that called?

GH: Deadwing. I haven't got it myself yet.

PW: I'll have to look out for that. Is it out in America yet?

GH: It's out now as far as I know. Any other modern progressive rock bands like Spock's Beard or Dream Theater?

PW: Not particularly. I listen to a lot of the Italian guys; I listen to Le Orme a lot. I like Banco. I'm not into PFM, they're too clever for me. Yesterday I just bought the best hits of Procol Harem. They were great then, I loved them. I listen to a lot of jazz, I love Miles Davis. I like Jimmy Smith, the organ player. I listen to a lot of stuff.

GH: Would you say you're quite indifferent to the state of progressive rock at the moment then?

PW: The problem with progressive music now is that it hasn't progressed. It's still stuck in that late 70s thing. The stuff that's really progressive is not considered progressive. It's strange. I don't know what category we'll (the Borg Symphony) be put in, as it's way beyond prog. It's very experimental and alternative. Guys come on stage with jeans and trainers on and they expect you to take them seriously as entertainers. I'm from the school that you need a bit of entertainment. Wear a costume.

GH: Immerse the audience.

PW: Yeah. They don't do it as they don't know how to do it. Musicians, they tend to learn their instrument, get really good but they don't really think beyond that. When you get one that does, they are very rare, like Bowie and Gabriel. They play with the whole paint box: they write the music, they wear the costumes, they make a video, come up with interesting sets, lighting, so it's a whole show.

GH: Is there a band that you would like to do an album cover for?

PW: Erm, that's a good one. Maybe King Crimson. I've never done a King Crimson cover. That'd be a good one.

GH: What would you like to achieve in the future?

PW: Well, I have a movie that I'm trying to get made. Been working on it for quite a while.

GH: What stage is that at?

PW: It's fully written, I've got 2 producers, young guys who are very well connected. Lots of energy and enthusiasm and they've pretty much raised enough money to get it going. It will probably be shot in Canada. It's a story that is set in Paris, but Montr?al and Toronto in Canada are very much like Paris, you can use them as Paris. There's all sorts of incentives for you to do that. They'll pay you to go shoot a movie in Canada. I've done my bit, which was the writing. I've been working with these guys for almost 2 years now, to polish it and polish it and get a perfect script and we've done it. Got a bit tiresome having to do it again and again, but everything we redid was an improvement, so it was good.

GH: What kind of film is it?

PW: It's about the stealing of the Mona Lisa. A historical film; it was stolen in 1911 and recovered 2 years later. I started doing some research, trying to come up with a story for what could have happened in those two years. The bottom line of the story is that the one that returned to the gallery was probably not the real one, hanging in the Louvre.

GH: Controversial.

PW: It would be yeah; the producers are going to play that up as well.

GH: Are you one of the main consultants of the film?

PW: Yes, I'm one of the producers. I'm the third member. A lot of the time in Hollywood, they'll buy a story and then tell you to get lost. But I didn't want that to happen and I was lucky in that the two producers didn't want that to happen, as I had done a lot of research, so I'm a valuable resource for information. They're keeping me in the picture and it's a good relationship.

GH: Enabling you to keep the film within your intended vision of the project.

PW: Yeah; what we've got to do now is hand it over to the right people. We've got some real good acting connections to play the parts. We've got a couple of directors in mind. You've gotta be careful when you hand it over to a director as they have to be on the same page as you. So that's our next big decision, who is going to direct it. The film will be called the Bride Stripped Bare, as the Mona Lisa is the portrait of a bride; her husband had her portrait made just as they got married. These guys in the movie are making copies, so in doing so really get to analyse in depth the work put into the Mona Lisa and what makes it so famous and controversial.

GH: Anything else you're working on for the future?

PW: I've bought myself a farm in Italy. I'd like to live in the north east part of Italy.

GH: Are you sick and tired of America now then?

PW: I've got a British and American passport, I've got dual citizenship. So I can go backwards and forwards, even to Europe without any problem. So I'm thinking of doing a 50/50. The last 3 years? I've done 3 art shows in Italy this year and I spend quite a bit of time there.

GH: When did you fall in love with Italy?

PW: I fell in love with Italy when I was 16. My friend from school and I, we hitch-hiked. We never felt happy in England, never felt it was quite our place.

GH: I know the feeling.

PW: I always used to think, "There's gotta be a better place than this." So off we went with our backpacks and we hitch-hiked, and going through France, Belgium and Germany was the same old stuff in a way, and then you get to Italy and you go "WHOA! This is how it should be, man! This is how people should live!" Everybody is so free and easy. The girls are pretty, it's just really nice.

GH: You're comfortable with the language?

PW: I've got a working vocabulary and then when I'm there it gets pumped up. Last time I was there, I stayed there for 2 months and by the end of it I was really good. I was in this pub and I was telling jokes in Italian. Then I knew I was there.

The Borg Symphony's debut album, Ode To Hero Tixe, was released in July and is, as Whitehead alludes to above, "a modern electronic opera documenting the chronicles of the hero Tixe, the great Borg warrior." Along with Whitehead, are Andrea Bassato (Le Orme), Alex Carpani, Wolfgang Temperance and Michael Dunn.



Added: August 17th 2005
Interviewer: George Heron

Artist website: www.paulwhitehead.com
Hits: 1813
Language: english

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