1. You’re currently involved in David Bowie Is at V&A Museum. What is the aim of this exhibition?
Not to sentimentalise the idea of David Bowie, and merely look back with dreamy, trivialising fondness, but to represent him as an artist who used Pop music, fashion, the avant garde, manipulation, playfulness to glamorously and intellectually express his thoughts, ambitions and feelings. To try and find new ways of transporting Pop musicians into a museum setting without on the one hand being too formal, academic and sterile, diminishing the power; and on the other hand merely a sort of decorative Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame, Hardrock Cafe event, sticking guitars and pictures on the wall as if that explains what happened and is happening. To turn the conventional exhibition into a performance itself that works on a number of levels, as if this might be a clue about the future performance of Pop music once it is more classical history than today’s central force. To develop a way of showing artists and musicians like David Bowie not to be nostalgic, but to find ways of making the exhibition itself have a personality and atmosphere that reflects the complexity and resonance of Bowie without fixing him in place and spoiling the mystery, the intoxicating strangeness of what he did and how he did it. To illuminate his work without setting it into stone and simplifying it. Essentially, to produce a new form of biographical history, for a new form of art, in ways that provide the best of the idea of a museum as a way of collecting, showing and explaining art with the excitement and provocation of popular culture. Hopefully, to suggest how such exhibitions should be done, set the precedent for how the Pop music greats enter history, and enter our unfolding imaginative sense of the past. Also, very much, to make it clear how even though Bowie made music in the past, had enormous success in the ’70s, established himself through ingeniously exploiting and even inventing very 60s and 70s conditions, his work is essentially timeless, and should not be considered old but of the now, of the moment, in the way that great works of art travel through time and never date, never become merely period pieces, never get shunted away whatever new developments in technology and culture there may be. In a way, the exhibition is representing memory, and memories, of Bowie, and his fans, and colleagues, and his idols, without it becoming backward-looking. It flows through memory into the now, and the next, and beyond, which is not easy to do, especially in a series of rooms, but it had to be like this – rich and emotional as well as a series of objects and images set in place, to properly capture the astonishing nature of Bowie’s mind and life.
2. It has been suggested that your role at V&A Museum is more historian. Is that an accurate title for the role you’ve been given?
There was no specific role I was given, but I like to think as the originator of the exhibition’s title and the supplier of the “David Bowie is…” slogans, I was the head of the “is” department. The word “is” does figure inside the word “history”. So I hoped to bring a new approach to history as part of what I might bring to the show. There were incredible people working on the sound, the design, the production, the curation, the mood, the lighting, the construction; all the complex practical details involved in setting up such a show. In a way I was the head of the most abstract department, the “is” – the fixing, in an unfixed way, the fluid idea of the “David Bowie is…”, a role that suggested elements and strands that do not traditionally make it into these sort of exhibitions, but I think are necessary. This helped to set the overall tone of the exhibition by creating a sort of inspiring manifesto that itself becomes embedded in a fragmentary way into the very substance of the exhibition and how it is experienced, sold, reviewed, remembered etc.
3. You spoke recently about how David Bowie had influenced and inspired you in your childhood. How influential is David Bowie’s work to you now?
Once the momentum has been set in place, there is no stopping it really. Before I was asked to contribute to the exhibition I had just finished a couple of books, one about the Bakerloo line on the London Underground, and one that is a history of the North of England, and Bowie features, strangely, aptly, in both, because he has ended up being such a part of my imaginative and dream landscape, because he made me see things differently and more deeply when I was a young teenager – and his influence has never left me whatever I have done, as a writer, as a designer, as a broadcaster. His influence is not so much that of a Pop star, or a celebrity, but as a thinker, a writer, someone who detects and interprets cultural patterns with absolute originality and who always keeps thinking, even when they appear to be silence and absent.
4. When you speak about the economic and cultural significance of your youth and how it influenced you, there’s an assured conviction. However, in your book Nothing, you present the concept that the sudden death of your father influenced everything and nothing. Is it simply easier to address those other influences as there is limited emotional significance?
Well, you can make your mind up, and change it, or not, a little quicker about the flashes, spurts, star(t)s and currents of popular culture and historical environment than you can about death and family, which ultimately are the most complicated parts of life – those immediately around you, and what happens when it is all over, that all takes all of your life to work out. Along the way, working out art, culture, history, psychology etc can help you work out the harder, weirder elements of life, and help you rehearse in a way for the more personal, private parts of your life.
5. In Words and Music you cover the concept of ‘the icon’. Have Pop icons changed at all?
The central idea, and why we like them, want them, demand them, crave them more and more, remains the same, reflecting the same desires, dreams and confusions, and the hope that perhaps the icon at their most charismatic and provocative can help you get your bearings, open up possibilities, supply maps of the imagination, rather than just being the well-paid and complacent suppliers of pleasure and surprise. Pop icons now are very like the Pop icons of the 60s and 70s, and many of the poses, expressions, sounds, rhymes, rhythms, souvenirs remain the same, with various sonic, theatrical and digital adjustments, but there is not much now happening in terms of visual presentation and musical content that would alarm or disconcert the 1972 fan of Bowie, the Velvets, Can and Roxy Music. This is not meant to suggest “Oh, it was better in the old days”, because in the end it was just different, and in a different time and space, but is meant to demonstrate how powerful and forward-thinking a lot of those artists were, in terms of designing a form of Pop Art with a soundtrack that would not look out of date forty, fifty years later – somehow transforming, in a genuinely transgressive way, the trivial and transient into something that has ended up having such permanent intensity and value.
6. You worked as a journalist for NME during a time that many would see as its peak. Is there a particular moment or incident that has stayed with you?
Interviewing certain people at the age of 20, 21, 22, like Patti Smith, Blondie, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Devo, Joe Strummer, Siouxsie etc; that was something to turn the head. Fighting to get Ian Curtis on the cover, because it seemed important, and it turned out it kind of was; being blamed for losing 30,000 readers after writing a piece about Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead; working with the photographer Anton Corbijn; being physically threatened by Killing Joke, by Meatloaf, Lou Reed; being driven through the dark in Stuttgart at a hundred miles an hour by Ted Nugent; getting cassettes through the post from unknown bands that turned out to be Orange Juice, Gang of Four, the Associates, Josef K, the Human League . . .
7. You spent a year with the Royal Academy of Music learning to be a classical composer. Have you ever considered returning to writing music?
I do it in my head all the time, and would in an ideal world love to be able to earn a moderately good income composing hopefully exquisite string quartets. I like to think there is some sort of music in my writing, and like to think that a lot of the time when I write about music, what I think about it, and what it means to me, is as much in the form of the piece as it is in the content.
8. Is there anyone new to the music scene that excites you?
This is always the hardest question to answer, and the answer is “yes and no”. And of course it is impossible. And how can there not be? There is no such thing any more as a music scene, just all of the history of music in one place. And today I listened to Mozart at midday, Cecil Taylor at one, a splash of Dub Techno at two, the Pyramids at three, Neil Young’s 1965 Elektra demos at four, Blue Orchids at five, the anniversary edition of Four Tet’s Rounds at five, the new Matthew Herbert at six, and June Tabor on ECM has excited me in the last day or two, and that is a discreet excitement, and what was the question?
9. We’re currently witnessing many ‘revivals’, but one has caught the attention of many music fans and brought some elements of controversy with it; Peter Hook, former guitarist of Joy Division, is set to tour with the songs of Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Whilst many fans will be keen to hear these songs live, others are stating that it’s immoral. Can you relate to either group?
Peter’s handling of the idea of Joy Division and New Order is not for me, and I would therefore prefer it not to be for anyone, as it seems to rip the music out of its very particular and unique context and slam it into something ordinary and mundane. My way of hearing those songs live, outside of hearing those songs live as they have been recorded, is to imagine them, and to imagine a new setting and context for them that might be more appropriate than just replaying them like they are some sort of run-of-the-mill jukebox musical that exists merely to repeat the past without no additional treatment. If the original had something that resonated with something mind-changing it was mostly because it despised the idea of the revival – the routine, the rock cliche, the ordinary. There is something dispiriting about representing the extraordinary in an ordinary way, but that’s speaking from a pretty purist point of view. But then again, that is the sort of purity the music originally spectacularly proposed and articulated.
10. Are you happy to share your life story?
Certain parts of it – the parts that take me from one part of a story I might be telling to another, and the parts that might reveal and expose one set of emotions and recollections. But I keep most of them private and hidden, where I like them best, until I need to use them to get from one place to another in a story I am telling. In the book I have written about the North, being published in June, there is some sense of me telling parts of my life story, but also some sense that it is only really a dream that I have had about my life, which might actually be someone else’s life, those parts of the dream that I can remember. The rest is forgotten, and cannot be shared, unless one day I suddenly remember it again, as if it really happened, or didn’t at all.