Interview: The Intersection of Punk and Philosophy
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The punk explosion of the 1970s and '80s stretched beyond the music: it was a cultural moment that influenced art, fashion, design, and how and why people made things. In order to compile their book The Truth of Revolution, Brother, Charlie Waterhouse, Lisa Sofianos, and Robin Ryde spoke with people all across the genre, from its pioneers to current torchbearers, in the US, UK, and beyond.
We talked with the three creators about the origins of the project, and what exactly punk, philosophy, and design have in common. The interview was conducted via email, and in the spirit of the collective, all of the editors contributed to the answers.
You three have a variety of backgrounds ranging far beyond music and pop culture writing. Where did the idea for this book come from?
We were all into punk when we were young. Robin can wax lyrical about going to see Stiff Little Fingers and the UK Subs at the tender age of 13 in Nottingham. Charlie’s first gig was Siouxsie & The Banshees (and he has seen The Fall 32 times).
Since then of course we've all gone on to do different things. These days Charlie is a graphic designer, Lisa writes books that challenge the way that organisations should work and Robin also writes books that he then lectures on to whoever will listen. But, for all of us punk has remained, and influenced much of the way we think – and our attitudes to life.
So the project was a logical extension of our love for punk, for writing, design and for ideas. It came out of a long car journey. We were talking about the fact that it’s been over 30 years since the punk explosion, and for many people we know punk changed their life.
How did you choose your interviewees?
We wondered how might the intervening decades had shaped the views of the architects of punk. We chose the interviewees not be saying to ourselves “who are the most well known punks?” but “which punks have got the most value to add to a discussion of punk philosophy?” So people like Penny Rimbaud of Crass and Einar Örn Benediktsson of the Sugarcubes & Ghostigital were first up on the list. But to be honest, we are absolutely delighted with all the people that have agreed to be interviewed – we’ve got to almost all of the people we wanted – and they really are the most influential punks out there.
How and where do punk and philosophy intersect?
For many people punk was an emergent mix of ideas, fashion and creativity that were about the right to self-determine and be heard in society. In many ways punk was a continuation of some of the ideas of pacifism, localism, anti-capitalism and anarchism that were to be found in the hippie movement. But there were also punks who examined the ideas of existentialism through their work and experimented with the disruptive power of surrealism and situationism.
The art that comes from the punk scene is typically confrontational and disturbing and shakes people free from habitual thought and falling back into unquestioning ideology. That’s not to forget the strong feminist message within the movement. We are in no doubt that there are deeply philosophical ideas that sit beneath punk, and it’s our view that this is why punk has had such massive influence.
Design is clearly important with this project. Where is the meeting of design and punk?
Design has always been an integral part of punk, communicating the principles of Do It Yourself and disruption. For many it was the art that brought people to punk in the first place. Jón Gnarr, the Mayor of Reykjavík, tells a stunning and moving story about his own upbringing which – through some rather clumsy diagnoses – had him spending some of his youth in various institutions. These were understandably dark days for him, and a way out of the isolation and confusion that he experienced was through Gee Vaucher's art and the writing of Crass. Jón couldn’t speak or read English at that time, but it was the power and clarity of Gee's images on the album covers that he connected with at first. This quite literally saved his life, and now of course he’s become a hugely influential figure and politician.
What's your team like? Who does what? Are there other people involved in the project?
We are old friends (in our mid 40s) and have known each other since we were in our late teens, always sharing our common love of music. We are parents and all work, and have come to a similar point in our lives where we want to examine where we are and where we want to go in the future.
We think that there are others who wish to do the same, and that this book can provide ideas and provocations that can help them. Lisa and Robin are the writing team and Charlie is in charge of design, although in practice we all get involved in everything. We founded the project on a genuine and open exploration of the subject matter, trust between the team members and a deep desire to deliver something of real value and beauty. This is not a commercial exercise for us, but art. As far as we know there is no one else out there doing the same work.
There's a wide definition of punk for the purposes of this book. Would you talk about that a bit?
Punk for us was always an expansive idea. It was about the politics, self-education and challenging of authority; the alternative lifestyles and disruption; the questioning of taken-for-granted notions such as capitalism, patriarchy and democracy. So our definition is necessarily wide. And of course the music itself quickly diversified. The first wave turned into myriad post-punk manifestations. People like Mark Stewart and Steve Albini are just as punk to us as Crass or The Adverts, and even people like Jeffrey Lewis, who wouldn’t classify themselves as punk, are torchbearers for a punk way of doing things.
And the beauty of having such a wide definition is we’re getting amazing perspectives on the subject. People that have engaged with the system, those that haven’t; each end of the (mainstream) political spectrum, anarchists and pragmatists. Punk encompasses an incredibly wide range of approaches, while staying true to its basic tenets of personal empowerment.
Who’s the punkest non-musician you can think of?
What a question! Well, some in the book certainly that fit the bill. Jón Gnarr, the artist Gee Vaucher, Gavin McInnes (US founder of Vice magazine), Domo Arigateu (graphic designer and activist) and others.
But to be honest, there are scores of people out there that we would argue are non-musician punks. Jackson Pollock, Sarah Silverman, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Russell Brand and maybe even Benedict Cumberbatch!
Then there’s Banksy. Perhaps he’s today’s most punk non-musician. He divides opinion, is widely misunderstood – surrounded by hype too, and gives The Finger to The Man. We’d love to have him in the book. Maybe we will, who knows.
Any other favorite anecdotes to share from any of the interviews?
There are loads! But one that springs to mind is when we arrived to interview Steve Ignorant, lead singer and co-founder of Crass.
We’d driven for five hours nonstop to get to his house. The moment we arrive we see him running out of his front door towards us like a man possessed. Steve pulls open the driver's door with an urgent look on his face. He jumps into the car and directs us to turn around and drive as fast as we can. Without a word, we do as we’re told. Turns out he’s a volunteer lifeboat crew member, and he’d just received an emergency call! It also turns out Steve doesn't drive. We had the living daylights frightened out of us, but it was all in a good cause. See, punk saves lives!
There’s another absolute cracker involving a loud-hailer, a scoutmaster and The Clash. But you’ll have to wait for the book for that one.