Childhood memories, dinosaurs, ghosts, and "other vaguely aquatic forms intermingling."
Graham Lambkin first came to public attention in the 1990s as a member of the band the Shadow Ring. He is also an accomplished visual artist, lending his art to countless record sleeves and maintaining a steady home practice of drawing, painting, and collage. Since 2009, the London-based Penultimate Press has published four books by Lambkin, including the recent Came to Call Mine, a gorgeous book of poems and drawings described by the artist as “a children’s book for adults.” The book’s release coincided with an exhibit of the same name held at Audio Visual Arts in Manhattan, as well as with Lambkin’s first-ever solo musical performances. Twenty years since the release of his first record, we see a host of fresh firsts for the artist.
One gets the sense that Graham Lambkin sees the world through a very peculiar lens. His observations on the mundane are often startling, though rarely far-fetched. William Burroughs said of Denton Welch that Welch “makes the reader aware of the magic that is right under his eyes,” and the same could be said of Lambkin. He looks at an everyday object and sees an ocean of possibility.
The following conversation was held in my living room, spread out on the carpet, nursing a few beers, and enjoying each other’s company.
Graham Lambkin Do we just talk?
Matt Krefting We do just talk. (laughter) The book has been described as a children’s book for adults, and I wondered about ways in which certain things from your childhood crop up over and over again in your work. There’s a whimsical aspect, a sort of terror, that I think is pretty close to childhood. Do you think that’s true?
GL Yes. I’m glad you brought this in. I can give you an example—this one: “Nice Day at the Beach”:
Remember the paper of rabbit-tusked teeth?
Or the jam in the sandwich that dropped to your feet?
Remember Jenny and Mum on their towel by the wall
As the bear claw extended to slaughter them all?
This is actually a direct response to something that did happen to me as a child, but no one would know that. It can be read as nonsense. But I was at the beach with my mom and this woman, Jenny. The day stuck in my mind because she had a magazine, which had a picture of this incredible rabbit that had tusks—like walrus tusks. It was a bit like the “rabbucks” from After Man. It scared the life out of me, because I’d never seen anything so freakish, and it wasn’t presented as a fable—it was this unusual, anomalous animal. I never forgot it. So, we were at the beach when I saw this “paper of rabbit-tusked teeth,” and I remember dropping my sandwich—I don’t remember if it was jam—but I remember dropping my sandwich in absolute terror when I saw it. And the thing about the bear claw, that was just a poetic way of describing that terror—the fear.
So there are things in this book that are directly related to childhood events. Another one, “Sharp Garden,” is about a memory I have of a very nice day playing in a garden or a park and digging in the dirt as children do, and then pulling my hand up to find that it was red. There was cut glass in the soil; when I pulled my hand out, I had a filthy, bloody hand. I remember being distraught. Throughout this book, there are all kinds of windows into childhood experience.
MK It seems like there are varying levels of correlation between the text and the images as well. In some cases, it seems like characters from the poems crop up in the drawings, but then other ones seem more extrapolated—abstract responses, if they’re even responses.
GL You’re right. This one, “Barber’s Beast of Prey,” for instance, is about a memory of being at a lake with my best friend’s mother, Valerie, and her kids, and being very scared—I’d never been in fresh water before—that the fish would swim around you. It’s kind of hard to see, but there’s a piranha-type profile in the painting—see the eye and the mouth? You could imagine it going there, but it breaks up. Then you have these other vaguely aquatic forms intermingling, which display that kind of weave as they go around your legs. The poem has some of that it in—it’s water-based—but it’s a bit more ferocious than what I was really dealing with, which were probably minnows. (laughter) There was no chum ball, or blood in the water, or anything like that.
MK A lot of those kinds of characters have cropped up in your lyrics for a long time—beasts, insects, weird creatures—
GL Sea creatures, totems from the coast. There’s a leakage of wildlife coming into a domestic situation. Certainly. It’s a children’s book for adults; there are a few things in there to keep mom interested.
MK (laughter) The childhood aspect really interests me. You used childhood imagery before you had kids, and now you have kids, and it seems like you’re more immersed in that world every day—collaborating with them on their own visual art. I’m wondering—has your vision of your own childhood changed as a result of that?
GL I think I realize, as a parent—I’m sure it’s an idyllic, over-romanticized, soft-centered recollection of my childhood—but mine seems much more perfect and pastoral than anything they’re experiencing now. I remember long, lazy afternoons by the millpond, long walks in the woods, all these things that we don’t get to do so easily as a family because of the geographic variation. But of course that’s a ridiculous way to look at it, because they don’t know any of that! My own father probably looked on me growing up and lamented the fact that I couldn’t experience the same quality of life that he experienced as a child growing up. But the one thing that connects me to my children, the umbilical cord from my childhood to theirs, is art—and storytelling. That’s the one thing that was strong. My childhood, as a memory, is present in theirs. That’s the connective tissue between the two generations of young Lambkins. We do a lot of that together, to reinforce what you saw yesterday—they love to do their drawings, and I take an active part in it. They won’t have the same feelings about it that I do though.
MK Has working with them impacted you, when you go back to draw without them? I’ve seen things that you do in coloring books—you’re dealing with dinosaur forms, things like that, which weren’t absent from your work before, but seem much more present in the new book.
GL That’s true. I think it comes from their personal interest in evolution. I’ve certainly been exposed to more information about that than was available to me as a child. I had dinosaur books, but in the ’70s, when I was five, most of that hadn’t even been discovered—they keep finding new things all the time. There’s this sort of refresher course I’ve had to take on what it means to be a fan of dinosaurs or prehistoric mammals, or any of these epochs that house all sorts of fantastic creatures. They are cropping up in my drawings, actually—there are a few pieces that are exclusively about the “quaternary door,” an idea that gives its title to the book. It’s an analogy to deal with the generation gap between the two generations. They’re looking at each other through this doorway; there’s no way they can pass through to each other. You have these radiators and doorways and internal structures here, while over here it’s completely wild—there’s a mollusk, a tree-trunk thing in the grass. (reads) “The quaternary door, the fossilized claw that raps on the door, conjures a sound we can’t hear no more.” I like that line, “can’t hear no more.” I know it’s wrong, but it’s very English. “But from back in time, was there ever a sign, that we’d have pencils and stencils, cell phones and Beatles, feedback and teacups, mud flaps and mishaps and oil slicks and toothpicks and everything else that we came to call mine.”
MK A lot of the images are in flux between one thing and another. The poems seem to be between one idea and another. There’s a fluidity to the work that is more pronounced in this book than in the others.
GL That’s because I’m more aware of my place on this conveyor belt, heading somewhere. Without kids, I didn’t have any sort of signpost indicating where I was on this trip from one end of this life to the other. Now, I’m very much aware because there are four hands pushing me, and I’m watching the person in front of me get very close to the edge. I’m starting to realize where I am in all this. How much time I’ve got left, how much time I’ve used—assuming there’s no sudden end to things.
MK We’ll see how the drive back to Poughkeepsie goes.
GL (laughter) Tonight could be touch-and-go. But that has put things into focus. I think it sobers anyone up, to get to this position.
MK It’s also the first book you’ve done that doesn’t include a CD. I imagine that was a pretty conscious decision.
GL Well, Mark Harwood—who runs Penultimate Press—was pushing for a flexi-disc, but I really wanted to make a break from this kind of jumbled package of all these elements. Also, I don’t think this needs that element to be successful. You could argue that none of them needed the audio element. That’s something else that has always been on my mind—I don’t think I ever successfully fuse music, written work, and art. I have to be in a different headspace to do each of those three things—they’re the results of very different moods and desires; I try to leave them separate. You have to treat the mediums like children. Two of them can play very nicely together, but when three come along, you have to separate them. This is fine—to have poetry and artwork hand in hand. One plays off the other quite nicely. But does that need to be sound-tracked? No. If you look at all the covers of my records since 1998, none of them has my artwork. I don’t think the style that I draw in complements the kind of music I make. I don’t mind doing artwork for someone else, because I don’t have that investment. But I couldn’t put one of my own graphic drawings—one of these things in this book, for example—on the cover of Salmon Run. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
MK I thought that came across strongly when Poem came out. I thought you were pushing back against—well, of course, the last two Shadow Ring records—
GL They were text-based.
MK But then Poem comes out, and it’s just your handwriting of the word poem. It felt like you were just leaning back as far as you could from the idea of doing your own artwork. You’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I like it as part of this thing that we’re talking about—the shift from the earlier to later Shadow Ring, especially the last two records. The band really slows down. You literally slow the tapes down, the output gets sparser, the lyrics get sparser. Then eventually the band expires ....
GL Comes clean, I think. Near the end of Hold Onto I.D., I stopped pretending that we were anything more than what we really were. We were trying very hard up until that point to be taken seriously as a credible band that played instruments and toured and did all those sorts of things. Of course that so infrequently happened that we ended up providing a more truthful example of what we really were about, which was having a lot of fun. Lighthouse is live—there’s one overdub on Lighthouse.
MK I always thought it was collaged.
GL No, it’s all recorded live—in two different locations. Lindus is a complete collage. I’m Some Songs is basically live, with some overdubbing. It was sort of a game of reduction: each record had to distill or reduce from the previous one. So when you get to the end of the road with I’m Some Songs, it’s just like you’ve said—the analogy is this battery that’s just … done. The machine just stops. We were very conscious of making a final record. I think that’s very important—you have to announce the end of something. As a consumer of music one of the things I’ve always disliked was thinking, What ever happened to that band? Throbbing Gristle got it right. They announced the end.
MK Or Goodbye by Cream.
GL Goodbye! It was. Geographically, it was silly to think we could carry on doing anything other than what we had done. I suppose I pick up the threads on Poem, which is even slower, even more extrapolated, even duller. That was it for me, for what, six years?
MK A long time. When you put out Poem, it didn’t seem like you had too much of an interest in continuing. (laughter) Is Salmon Run the second release on your label Kye?
GL Yep, and then the Shadow Ring compilation (Life Review, 1993-2003) is number three.
MK Did you think when you started Kye that it would take off in the way that it did?
GL No, no. I had to switch back to vinyl before people started to want to buy the things. The first vinyl on Kye was the first album by [former Shadow Ringer member Tim Gross’s project] Call Back the Giants.
MK Do you think you’d do CDs if you could?
GL I’d prefer that they all came out on CD. Then people could play them in more rooms. I could listen to them.
MK You mostly listen to them digitally, is that right?
GL I never play them—I don’t go near them.
MK (laughter) They’re in your other room. You don’t even go in there? We came close to playing some records last night.
GL We did!
MK The lamp got turned on; that was about as far as we got. We never made it out of the CD room.
GL I don’t know what happened to me and records. You have to nurse them. You have to be ready. With CDs, I can do anything, have filthy hands … I can be making food, charcoal on my hands, and I don’t have to worry about dirtying an expensive record. The CD will just cycle through its sequence, and then just patiently wait for me to clean up.
MK It’s also a much more cost-effective way to hear strange things than buying these expensive originals, or these ridiculous thirty-dollar reissues—
GL That’s the other thing that soured me—these reissues! I always say that you should be able to go into a record shop with a hundred dollars in your pocket and come away with more than three LPs, right? I will concede that with vinyl there’s a nicer opportunity to present visual art and the sound quality is probably better than that of CDs. Not always though—there’s all this digital mastering for vinyl, so there’s not much difference in it. At the end of the day, it comes down to ease of play and economics—those two factors override the aesthetic advantages of one form over another. I didn’t always think that way, but now I do. Not all of the things I choose to listen to are available on vinyl anyway. I don’t have the financial muscle to afford original copies of these things. But they’re all on CD for twenty bucks, and they all sound great. I’m quite happy to go along with that. Who’s got a thousand dollars to buy a Museo Rosenbach original record? I can get a beautifully mastered tape transferred for twenty. There’s nothing wrong with that.
MK Nothing. Let’s talk about the show—you just had your first art show.
GL Ah, the art show.
MK We’re catching you in your infancy.
GL That’s right, baby steps. I just had my first show at the AVA Gallery in the Bowery. We chose eight drawings, plus a small room in the back with photos—bits and bobs—my personal effects on shelves.
MK Like a photograph from your refrigerator.
GL Very revealing, that photograph. Did you see it?
MK Yeah, I remembered it from your refrigerator and thought, Well, that’s weird that he even—
GL That was done to terrify my in-laws. (laughter) They used to hate that face. It’s a kind-of porcelain sculpture, shot off the computer screen. I printed it out, and they hated it. Then I made a smaller one and stuck it in a picture frame, on a photo of them all—a family photo. There was a picture of a relative behind them, and I cropped out that face again, and I stuck it in the photo—as if it were in their room. They were terrified. The other thing that’s weird, while we’re talking about that—there was a picture taken in Miami of me and my in-laws, in what would’ve been their main room. There was wallpaper behind us. When we got the picture back—and this is true—the wall behind us in the photo has a huge crack. It looks like the cement’s crumbling behind us. It’s not a printing error, it’s not a digital mishap—we had them made from film stock. It terrified everyone! The wall was cracking and breaking behind us.
MK Only in the photograph?
GL Only in the photograph. My mother had stuff like that happen to her. I always thought that the place where I grew up was haunted. My sister and I both saw ghosts as kids. I remember seeing my mom in my room one night, with clothes hung over her arm, heading towards the closet. I said to her, “What are you doing in there, Mom?” And she just looked at me and she didn’t answer. I watched her go around the bed and I just went to sleep again. So I asked her about it in the morning. I can remember the conversation clear as day. I asked her, “Why were you in my room last night, hanging stuff up?” And she said that she wasn’t. I said, “Yes you were, and I asked you ‘What are you doing?’ and you didn’t answer.” She said, “Oh, you must’ve been dreaming.” I wasn’t dreaming though; I wouldn’t accept it. I later found out that my mom’s mother, who was deceased, used to live in that room, and looked exactly like her. Let’s pause so I can get another beer.
MK Another meeting of the minds for us was our mutual interest in Bowie.
GL Yes, I remember our land bridge was David Bowie, ZNR, and Whitehouse.
MK One of our first bonding moments was when [musician and artist] Scott Foust took a walk one night, and you and I stayed behind and watched Cracked Actor.
GL I remember listening to David Live at Scott’s house. He enjoyed David Live because of its ridiculous cowbell. I do remember early meetings with you at Scott’s place—I don’t know the year.
MK It would’ve been 2001, 2002—
GL Your interest in ZNR piqued my interest in you—that you would know about that. Not many people were into it. Now, it’s kind of a watch word, isn’t it? I see that band, ZNR, quite often regurgitated on Facebook—Barricade 3. I don’t often see much love for Traite de Mechanique Populaire.
MK That’s the one I’ve been listening much more lately.
GL You get to that point where that record becomes more of a pleasure.
MK In my car I still have the tape that you made me. You wrote on the back, in ghost letters, “You Are Weird.” Which I didn’t notice for years!
GL (laughter) Well, that’s a compliment!
MK I took it that way, anyway.
GL If I hadn’t wanted you to know, I wouldn’t have put it on the tape. I don’t remember that, but it doesn’t surprise me. It is very weird to find someone at the tender age of whatever you were, twenty, in college, knowing about that stuff. It took me a long time to find anyone who knew about that stuff, other than Scott.
MK Could you talk about moving from England to America? Did that do anything to your art? Not the nationality thing, but in terms of lifestyle changes.
GL Well it denied me a social life, at least at first. Moving into a predominantly Cuban household, in a Cuban neighborhood, made me feel completely alienated. The first fruit of that—creatively that is—must have been the Elklink record [The Rise of Elklink, originally issued on cassette by Polyamory in 1999].
It’s hard to appreciate the conditions—I say “conditions” like it was hell, but in England, we’d had Coombe House, which was quite a big place. It was our town; we had friends—super-familiar. Going from that to a tiny room shared with Adris [Hoyos, Lambkin's partner and member of noise band Harry Pussy] in a Spanish-speaking house—
MK With her parents, right?
GL With her parents. No job, no income. Nothing to do. No stereo, no books. We came empty handed—just a suitcase of clothes. We acquired one of those super-cheap boomboxes, which her mother didn’t want. Then I started to have people send me things. Darren Harris, of The Shadow Ring would send me tapes, things like that. But with nothing to record on other than the built-in microphone on this machine, the only thing I could do was—well, what ended up as the Elklink record: close mic, vocal shenanigans, with lots of room leakage. I got a four-track sent over and Lindus was produced down there, from the cassettes that were being sent.
MK You got more gear when you moved to Poughkeepsie.
GL Yes, that’s the link. I ended up getting a job at Alliance Cinema, and one of the volunteers was the wife of a person called Don Raleigh, who, as it turned out, was in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a fairly popular swing band, very retro—consciously so. He had a huge house down in Miami Beach, with a Bentley. They weren’t hard up. I ended up being asked to housesit for them for one summer for three months. They had all this recording equipment that was, at the time, state-of-the-art. Prior to that, I would go down there a few times a week, because he wanted to make an avant-garde record. He didn’t have anything else to do, and he understood that I was interested in avant-garde music, so he wanted to make an avant-garde record with me. I don’t think he really understood the point of a lot of it, but he had fun doing it. There’s a track from those sessions on Draining the Vats.
When we moved to New York, I got a call from him asking if FedEx had been there that day. I said, “Not yet.” I hadn’t been anticipating any delivery. He said, “I’m sending you all my recording equipment.” I got a Kurzweil keyboard, a computer with ProTools, some super high-end mics, and a twenty-four channel mixing desk—it all just showed up. This is what we recorded I’m Some Songs with. You’ll notice that all the Shadow Ring records have a very crummy, synthetic texture, except for the last one, which is very crisp and clear. It’s because of this Kurzweil.
MK That’s what you and I used to record that Last Element cassette.
GL Yeah, you know this. I still want to hear that tape!
MK Oh, we’ll hear it. That was recorded in your bedroom, wasn’t it?
GL Yeah, the bedroom became a kind of ad hoc recording studio. Then the things started to break—the only things I have now are the keyboard and the mics. The mixing desk started to short out; half the channels don’t work. And I was carrying around this thing that weighed forty pounds. Now I’ve got this tiny little thing—it could sit on this book. Light as air.
They got divorced shortly afterwards, Barbara and Don. He showed up once after that, unannounced, and ate his way through our cupboards—and had the audacity to play his flute unrequested. Unsolicited flute recitals at eleven at night! You have to stop that. We have neighbors; you can’t just wander around like Jethro Tull whenever you feel like it.
I don’t know what happened to him. She had work—some kind of money from somewhere. We believe he was actually from the Raleigh Bike family, of North Carolina, which is where he was from. It turned out that the Raleigh Bike Company was founded in North Carolina. He had to be—Squirrel Nut Zippers could not sustain that kind of lifestyle for more than the year that they were popular. But that was a funny chapter—to be tied in with the Squirrel Nut Zippers for a short time.
MK And to have them help out with the final Shadow Ring record is nice.
GL (laughter) Exactly.
Graham Lambkin and Moneik Darge will release a collaborative album on his own Kye Records in August. Lambkin will be playing the Kye/Penultimate Press festival at Cate Oto, London on October 17 and 18 and at Issue Project Room in New York City on October 25th.
More info on Came to Call Mine can be found at Penultimate Press.
Matt Krefting is a writer and musician living in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His LP Lymph Est is out now on Kye. He blogs at kreftingmoondawn.wordpress.com.