Artist Paul Whitehead Interview 2006

Paul Whitehead in Borg mask

By Lorraine Kay

Q. You are best known for your work as a record cover artist and most for your covers for Genesis albums in the 70s. I think I heard that you have done in excess of 165 album covers, but recently you have branched out and begun making your own special kind of music. Can you tell me about the Borg Symphony?

A. I am very proud of the Borg Symphony. Cause for me it’s kind of strange, because I have always been around musicians. For some reason all my friends have always been musicians throughout my lifetime. I never learned to play an instrument. It just seemed too tedious to me. I tried piano lessons and I tried guitar lessons and I didn’t like that.

Q. So if you are not a musician, what do you play in the Borg Symphony?

A. Well, I play keyboards. And I’ve had a computer since 1984 and I’m pretty good on the computer, so I make music on the computer. I use all the programs that are available to anybody. I write my stuff and then give it to the composer I work with, this guy called Alex Carpani. And between us we make the music and we assemble it.

Q. During a live gig what do you do?

A. I play a laptop. Since I am a science fiction guy, here is the concept of the Borg Symphony. One day I asked myself a question – “What kind of music would cyborgs make?” I had the question because they still have human components but they also still have the computer thing happening and are completely wired. So I thought it would be kind of interesting because I find a lot of real pure electronic music is totally soulless. It’s got no heart. So I thought this would be some kind of combination. So, I asked some of my musician friends that question and they just like responded with “Wow! What a great idea! Let’s do some. Let’s do some cyborg music.”

Q. When you talk about Borgs, are you referring to the Star Trek Borg?

A. Well, cyborgs, but we’re not dark and sinister. We’ve got those elements. We’re all part of a big collective and no one’s allowed to think for themselves and all those concepts are in the music. But the symphony has a theme or story. The first one, the story is a very sad story. It’s a story of a guy who’s been made a hero for all the other Borgs to look up to. And he goes into battle and he gets mutilated and killed. And they all put him back together again and bring him back to life. And the guy is totally tortured. Every time they give him a new arm or a new leg, or whatever, it comes with residual memories of the person who owned it before him. So he’s having all these confusing thoughts and flashbacks and so on. So he’s a very sad kind of character, the anti-hero. Because, basically, all he wants to do is die. He just wants to get out of it. And they won’t let him die. So that’s the story. And I wrote all  of the words (there’s a story teller who wears one of the Borg masks tells the story.) I wrote the music with Alex. And we put it together with actors and musicians and it’s a very interesting project. I’m very proud of it. My first musical. We’ve added some new pieces, which we’ve written. It’s a story almost like an opera. There’s probably going to be six or seven people. There’s three synthesizers, a bass player, a guy on woodwinds, a storyteller and then there’s Amanda, who sings one song. She’s an opera singer with an amazing operatic voice.

The other element of performing this is like when I went to Marseilles to Prog Sud and they asked me if I would do the Borg Symphony. I told them “Yeah, if you can bring everybody over.” But six people sounds impossible. So they asked if I could perform it with French musicians. So I said “sure.” Cause we’ve done it live maybe three or four times and we’ve had a different line up every time. We have our core members but then we add people. So it’s Prog Su, right? And they announced that I was going to do this, so musicians would come up and ask if they could play with me. One guy was a very good bass player, another guy was a drummer. I had a French actor who read the story. So we rehearsed and we put it together and we played it. It’s the only time it will ever happen that exact way. It’s all recorded. And then next time we do it, it will be different again. But it will be the same story, same music, same theme, but a different performance. And I like that. I like that variation. I get bored. If you want to drive me nuts make me do the same thing over and over and over again. I’ll go crazy. So the fact that doing it was like okay it’s a different variation. One of the problems we always have is they don’t want to rehearse. Nobody wants to rehearse. Because they’re very skilled musicians and they kind of like the adrenaline rush of doing it by the seat of their pants. Which is okay but it’s a nerve racking experience for me. I mean, I leave room for improvisation and variation but I like it to be well done. I like it to be entertaining and not embarrassing. So now I insist on rehearsal. The other thing is we’ve had things where nobody in the audience knew what was going on and it was like “we’re going …what the…“ And they thought it was great. The thing with us, it’s really important to hear certain cues. Otherwise everything is off. And that’s my job, basically. I’m like the conductor. I trigger the sequences or the loops and everybody picks it up. So when I went to France I took the computer with me with everything on it. So if there wasn’t a bass player I’ve got the bass track there and I can play it. So what I do basically are loops. I run loops. Some of them are 10 minutes long. One of the things I’ve discovered, is I do have a good ear. I never realized that before. But I think I’ve listened to music all my life. I love music. I am around music in my work. I think intuitively I understand song structure. And I can figure, “Oh yeah, this is a place where you would play, this is where you would do this. I think it’s something I had all along. Now I’ve got a channel for it. The first time I went into a studio and saw ProTools – I went “Oh my God!” I can do that! Because I have been doing graphics on the computer for God knows how long. And I went “Oh yeah” So now the guy I work with? I’m actually better at it than he is cause I do it visually. I can see. When I look at all the things stacked up – okay, we need to put it right there. That’s exactly the right place, right there.

Q. Going back to the beginning, in your bio you referred to your time at Oxford as disastrous? Why?

A. I was getting a scholarship. I had a teacher when I was at school that spotted me and said, “Oh, you’ve got talent.” And at that time they were offering scholarships to go to Oxford to working class kids. I had all the academic qualifications and was on my way. It was basically very academic. It was all the history of art, the biographies of the artists and all the “Isms”. And I wanted to do it. But I wanted to paint. I didn’t really want to learn about painting, but it was interesting. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll hang in here.” But the third year – it was a four-year course – we found out what was going on. There was a shortage of museum workers in England at the time. So, they decided to recruit middle-class, working class kids that had artistic leanings, educate them and then put them into the museum system. So, I became something like a museum curator. But. I just thought, I don’t want to do this. So, I was kind of trapped. And then it was my fourth year and I was like, “How am I going to get out of this? I don’t want to do this. It’s not the occupation I want.” And then I got my first record cover to do just by sheer accident. Fats Domino.

Q. So, your first cover was for Fats Domino, how did that come about, you said it was sheer accident?

A. A friend in London knew the A&R guy from Liberty, who is still a friend of mine, Andrew Lander. And what they were doing was they were repackaging American albums for the English market. The covers usually weren’t quite what they thought was good for England. So they asked me, “Do you want to do a cover?” I said, “Sure, why not?”  So I escaped. Of course, my father was furious. He just thought I was throwing my life away. Here I had this wonderful opportunity for an Oxford education, and a job with a paycheck and I just said “No, I don’t want to do that.” I still think he hasn’t forgiven me.

Q. Your more famous covers for Genesis – where did the inspiration for those covers come from? Did they or Charisma, the record company make suggestions of what they wanted or did you dome up with some ideas. What was the process?

A. Charisma, the record label was very visionary. What they used to do was they would sign a band and then they would send them down to this house in the country to rehearse and write and do whatever. And they did the same with me. They said, “Go and spend some time with them (Genesis) while they write the album.” Which is what I did. So I was there while the songs were being written, while the lyrics were being written, while they were changing stuff. But I wouldn’t stay all the time. I’d probably go down maybe two days and see what was going on and come away. Usually I would go and get some books on art and come back and say, “How about this, or how about that?” And it worked really well. It was more of a collaboration. It wasn’t like I was brought in at the end. The image evolved with the music, which is a perfect scenario.

Q. How awesome to be hanging out with Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins and the rest of the band. How old were you then?

A. Yeah, before they were Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. When they were just some guys. I see Phil is the most professional. I was 25 then. I was 21 or 22 when I did Fats Domino.

Q. You refer to the covers for Genesis’s Trespass, Nursery Cryme & Foxtrot, as some of the most successful collaborations you have ever had working with musicians. Why do you feel that way?

A. Like with Trespass, when I started on it they had written I think maybe three or four of the songs which were very kind of romantic and guitar driven kind of songs. We talked and we talked and I said, “Let’s do something kind of romantic, you know, a king or a queen looking over their white mountains.” And they said okay, great, off you go. So I started doing a pen and ink drawing and then water color. Very romantic. But the next time I went down there Peter said “Oh, we’ve written some new songs – Stagnation and The Knife. So I don’t think the idea works anymore for the cover.” And I was like “What do you mean?” Well, I’m very lazy. I don’t like to do stuff over. I don’t like to  abandon something that is perfectly good. So I said, “I still think there’s some way to still use this. So I started my brain side working. And I thought of different ideas – like burning it, maybe spilling ink on it, and then I went, “How about slashing it with a knife?” “Oh great idea!” they said.  So that’s what we did. So that was a collaboration. And they were actually there when I slashed it.  I got a razor blade and I slashed it and stuck the knife in it. And after I did that I kind of insisted most of the time that that’s the way I work with somebody. I hate to be brought in after everything is done and they need a cover. It’s much better if I am in the process.

Q. Your work with Genesis lead to projects with other bands. Tell me about that.

A. Other bands on Charisma that I worked with included Van der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill on his solo projects, Lindisfarne & Trevor Bilmus. I quickly became known as the painter and designer who worked with rock bands, a nice niche to be put into I thought. Collaborations with Renaissance, IF, High Tide, Mott the Hoople, Matthews Southern Comfort, Colin Scott & Steamhammer followed.

Genesis was right unique, though, because they’re intelligent guys. Well, other bands I worked with were intelligent, but I had a few where the girl friends and the wives got involved. The roadies got involved. Politics as well. Because say the guitar player brings me in to do the cover and the bass player doesn’t like the guitar player, he doesn’t like me either, just because of his problem with the guitar player. Some of that stuff happens. You just try to do your job. It’s fun, but some times it can be a chore. I think I’ve done it enough now I know, when I meet with them in the first place whether it’s going to be good or bad.

Q. Was most of your work through the record companies or did you get work outside of the record companies, just with the artists?

A. I kind of became like the house artist and designer for Charisma. So I worked with them a lot. But I have worked with practically every record company there is. Usually it’s through the band and the band says this is the guy we want to do our cover and then we go and meet with the record company. That’s usually the way.

Q. Have you worked with any of Genesis members on their solo albums?

A. No. I did Peter Hammill who was with VanderGraff. I did all his solo albums. See, I came here in 1974. And that was just after the Genesis “Live” album. So in those days, once you were here it was like impossible without FedEx, no FAX, no e-mail. So it was very difficult to work with someone 6,000 miles away.

Q. Why did you decide to come here to the United States?

A. I came here to do a cover for Renaissance and I loved it. The weather, hey.

Q. Where do you get your ideas for what you do, your inspiration? Does it come from the music or just from inside your head or what?

A. I’ve got a strange mind. They used to say at school, “Paul has a vivid imagination.” So I can very often be working and I’ll be listening to music and the lyric can trigger a whole idea. A line of a song or I can read something. It comes from all over the place. I read a lot, I’m very big into science fiction. I love science fiction.

Q. Have you done any book covers?

A. I’ve not for a long time. My stuff has been used on book covers. I haven’t been commissioned to do a book cover.

Q. How long does it take you to do an album cover?

A. That’s a hard question to answer. The hardest part is getting the concept. That takes the time. The painting is easy. Once I’ve got the painting in my head it could be one to three or four days.

Q. Have you ever had a time when a record company didn’t like what you created and had to redo something? What happens then?

A. The way I work, I spend a lot of time meeting with the musicians and discussing what it is they are trying to achieve, ideas. I don’t start working until everyone agrees. I do a sketch. So once I start it is okay. The Earth Wind and Fire thing, that was just an ego thing in the band and had nothing to do with me. I painted the painting that the guy I was working for agreed was what he wanted. I was so angry. So now I call it “Earth Wind and Fired.”

Q. You have since worked with several other artists, do you have any idea how many actually?

A. Right now there is an Italian company that wants to publish a book of my work. So we’re going back and looking up all my old covers and I am surprised – the people I have worked with. I mean, every thing, jazz, rock, folk, progressive, soul, new age. You name it, I’ve done it. We figured out there have been around 165. I’ve been at it awhile.

Q. When the dust has settled and the day is done, what is your favorite cover?

A. I don’t have “a” favorite. I think the one I think was the most successful and the one I am most associated with is Nursery Cryme. For some reason it happened very quickly. Everybody agreed. We did it and it was like “Yeah”. In some ways it has come back to haunt me all my life. It’s a pretty dynamic image.

Q. Is there a cover that you were not commissioned to do that you wish you had been?

A. It would be “Court of the Crimson King, by King Crimson. The one with the screaming face? I would have done something more like the Court of the Crimson King, but I couldn’t beat that. That was perfect. That was a good album. I would have liked to have done the cover and when I saw it… I was actually up to do it as well. I was one of the guys they were considering.  But I saw that and said I can’t beat that.

Q. Is there a particular artist that you wish you could work with but have not thus far?

A. There are a couple actually. There’s an Italian band called Banco. I’d like to do a cover for them. I really like Jackson Browne. I’d love to do a cover for him.

Q. What medias do you prefer to work in?

A. Oils. Because it’s the most accepted way of working.  It’s the most flexible. It’s evolved over hundreds and hundreds of year. So it’s obviously the way to do it. It’s a wonderful media. And each person has their own way of dealing with it. It’s the reason it is the way it is. I don’t like acrylics. I use acrylics on Trisha’s work.  And it’s likely to dry very quickly, it’s not the same. My palette, it can sit there for a month and when I go back the oil’s got a little film on it and I just break the film and there it is, it’s ready to go.

Q. What can you tell me about the Guiness Book of Records? Do you still hold that record?

A. As far as I know, yeah, the biggest mural in the world. 65,000 square feet in a hotel in Las Vegas that isn’t there anymore. It’s 250 ft. high and 165 ft. long. That was one big project. We did all four walls. It was painted right on the walls so when they tore the walls down the mural came down. It was Vegas World – Bob Stupak, remember him? It was a pretty hazardous job. We would go up to the roof because we were hanging from cables 250 ft. in the air. Every morning I would go up and check that all cables were good. It was quite a job.

Q. Another fun thing that I understand you are responsible for is the Eyes and Ears Billboard Art Show. Talk about that.

A. When I first came here I was very fascinated by the billboards, especially the big ones along Sunset. I don’t know if you remember but in the 70s they were like amazing. The record companies used to pay a fortune to promote an album and they’d have all these gismos, things that flashed and moved with smoke coming out. I thought wow, what a great art form. So I was driving along Sunset one day and I thought, wow, what about a drive-thru art gallery. An art gallery that you drive through in your car and don’t have to get out of your car. So once again I told some other people and they thought it was a great idea and they said “let’s do it.” So I went to the billboard companies and asked them what I would have to do to get some of their billboards to do an art show.  They told me if I was a foundation they could give them to me. Apparently, the billboard companies have up to 10% of their space has to be given to public service. So then I asked them what I had to do to become a foundation. So it escalated from there. So I got an attorney and we did our charter and we got our non-profit status. So we got a grant from the state of California, the billboards were given to us, we got sponsors for the equipment and I just turned a bunch of artists loose, who made images that were just pure images. No messages, no words, nothing. That was in 1978. And people still remember those images, because there were no messages, just a picture. So they loved it so much they asked us to do another one in San Francisco. So we did a second one around Fisherman’s Wharf, which was kind of interesting, San Francisco being a totally different city to L.A. As soon as we went to San Francisco and announced we were going to do the show we had representatives of all different special interest groups in San Francisco, like the gays and the lesbians and the Asians and whatever. They came to us and said we had to have “one of us in your show.” And I told them “No we don’t. We’re going to it the same as we did it in L.A. People are going to submit ideas and we will judge them on what they look like, not what their sexual persuasion is or what their politics are.” So they got all pissed off and they called me a L.A. hustler. But we went ahead and did it the way we did it in L.A. and when we finished up we had a lesbian and a gay, and a black and an Asian and whatever just because of the work. It was kind of interesting. We also did one small show in New York about three years later. But it started getting too complicated. It got too political. California was great! The California arts council was great. They gave us the money, no strings, just, “here, we like your concept, do the show and make sure you mention us.” But by the time we came to the third show there were all these conditions. I just basically said, well we’ve done two already and we had no problems, why would I suddenly start putting obscene pictures up on the street. It’s not the same thing I do. Why would I start being political. I’m not political. So enough is enough.

Q. You said that you got interested in writing screenplays, have you published any to date?

A. There’s one in the process right now. They’re raising the money to do it. It’s historical. It’s about stealing the Mona Lisa. But that’s a tough business.

Q. Who is Trisha van Cleef? Can you talk about her?

Well, Trisha van Cleef is me.  Because of the nature of what I do, my paintings with all the detail? Over the years I’ve found I get into painting and sometimes I’ll sit for 6 or 8 hours painting. And when I finish up at the end of the day my back is totally tight and thrashed and my neck is all tight. So I got into the habit at the end of the day of just freaking out, just painting something abstract. Just taking a canvas and painting and just having fun. I did that for quite a while and I used to put them in my storage space cause it was just fun stuff. And then I’d go over there every now and then and I’d go, “Wow, yeah, that’s not a bad painting”.  You know, I’d see stuff that’s in the galleries, abstract stuff and I’d go, “Well, my stuff is as good as that – at least as good as that”. So I’d take them out. And someone suggested that I should do my regular paintings and that, that they’re both good. And I said, “That’s kind of like a bit confusing. That might be a bit confusing for people thinking I’m schizophrenic or something like that. One of my art heroes is a guy named Marcel Duchamp. I was reading about him one day how he had an alter ego called Rose Selovy, a female alter ego. And she did all the whimsical stuff, all the silly kind of crazy stuff. So I thought that’s a good idea. Why don’t I do that? So I invented this character and it’s evolved. And now I’ve started using like stockings and pantyhose in layers in my paintings. And that’s Trisha van Cleef’s stuff. And I exhibit as both. I very often when I have an opening, I do the two. I have Paul’s work as one side and Trisha’s on the other.

Q. How did you decide what she looked like?

A. Well, one of my girlfriends made me up and got the wig and did the whole thing. She said “You need to do this and you’ve got this kind of face.” So what I do, for instance, if the show starts at 7 p.m., I turn up and see everybody and then I disappear and come back as Trisha for the end of the show. It’s great. People love it. Of course, the work is totally different. And the work, if you think about it, Paul’s stuff is very cerebral, very kind of logical, very kind of thought out – very male, actually. But the abstract stuff is more spontaneous and it just exists for the reason it exists. There isn’t any message. I like it. I like it. I also do them very fast. Trisha doesn’t have a very long attention span. She’s even worse than me. So, maybe an hour, maybe two hours at the most. And then it’s time to move on.

Q. So you have done many things. What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?

A. That’s a good question.

Q. I am assuming that as an artist, I mean, no artist ever feels like they’ve actually done their greatest work, yet, or they would stop.

A. I wasn’t going to answer that question in terms of my work because I know my best work is yet to come. I think my greatest achievement actually, is making a living as an artist in this world. Because I’ve never done anything else. I earn my living totally with my art and that’s quite an achievement right there. And in this day in age and living in L.A. as well? If you could pick the worst place for an artist to live it would be Los Angeles because nobody cares. Everybody wants to be in movies and television and they don’t care about artists. They use artists and they steal from artists but they don’t really acknowledge them. Not like they do in New York or Europe. It’s totally different. In New York it’s regarded as a respectable legitimate occupation. Here it’s like “and what else do you do? No, what do you really do.” People ask me that.

Q. If you could have done anything else in your life what would if have been?

A. When I was a kid I always thought I would like to be a doctor.

But, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.