While assuring me that he really is mentally sound, David Shrigley suddenly interrupts himself and catches me off guard. “I’m just looking out the window. There’s a man delivering a parcel and I’m wondering if that’s my parcel. It’s my birthday today. It’s from Amazon.com, a ‘learn to speak French’ tape…it’s my birthday present.” It’s a quintessential Shrigley moment that, albeit unintentionally, perfectly epitomises the tone intrinsic to his art.
From anyone else, this aside would sound altogether mundane, but to know his work is to picture these words scrawled across a white page in block print, partly crossed out, next to an amusing if not unsettlingly blunt illustration. Such is the magic of Shrigley that sooner or later you start to perceive the world on his terms. It’s also precisely the reason his characteristic scribbles are currently gracing album covers, books, t-shirts, postcards, newspapers and music videos. Yet it’s with the release of a new double album that his material will find an unprecedented incarnation. Bringing together a stellar assembly of indie favourites, various musicians have been called upon to adapt a page from the artist’s ‘Worried Noodles’ collection into fully-fledged songs. Grizzly Bear, Final Fantasy, Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, TV on the Radio, Hot Chip, Scout Niblett and Liars all head the cast in this unique artistic collaboration that surprises none more than the man himself.
“It’s a very peculiar experience to have written all these lyrics with no intention of them ever being sung. Not without actually coercing someone into doing it,” says Shrigley. “But in a way the whole thing came about by accident rather than design. Initially Tomlab asked me to do a record cover without a record in it, like a conceptual artwork. I thought that was a good idea, though I didn’t think anyone would buy it because it’s just a record cover, regardless of the concept. So I decided to make something to go with it and felt it should be a songbook. I wrote all these bits of concrete poetry and that turned into a nice little publication. It never really occurred to me that they would take it any further, but in retrospect I suppose it was inevitable. Once they asked the bands, I think it kind of took on its own momentum. Then an mp3 would turn up every week or so by a well-known musician performing my lyrics – I mean you’re bound to like it! I don’t think I could fail to, really, because it’s so personal to me. It’s a bit like curating an exhibition in a way; each track and each band presents a different thing. I’ve just provided a starting point.”
An artist of simplicity, Shrigley reduces his ideas to their barest form, ensuring the message is communicated immediately. With a crude, intentionally limited technique, he recreates the purity of expression normally associated with a child’s doodling and hijacks that transparency for his own purposes. Unsurprisingly, ‘Worried Noodles’ is a songbook in the loosest sense possible. From the harrowing to the hilarious, Shrigley is the master of a biting style of one-liner all his own. On one page, the sketch of a disfigured child is offset by the line: “The disabled lad wants you to buy him a wheelchair with the money that you won at the horse race.” Adapting that into musical form would not seem an easy task, but half the fun of Shrigley’s work is imagining the before and after of the scene in question – something this set of musicians have picked up on in an entirely new way.
Grizzly Bear’s offering, for example, is a mesmerising three-piece suite on the subject of blackcurrant jam, so affecting and extravagant that it seems far removed from its humble beginnings. “I think that’s the one I found most surprising,” agrees Shrigley. “It was certainly the most inventive approach to the lyrics. It’s quite a hard proposition to make something out of that one small paragraph, yet they turned it into this…odyssey. It’s really great, quite stunning in its inventiveness. One of the good things about this record – and Grizzly Bear’s contribution illustrates it – is that there were a few bands I had sort of heard of but hadn’t got their records, so subsequently my interest has been sparked and I’ve really enjoyed seeking out their back catalogues. So it’s nice, it has been a kind of catalyst. I don’t really need any excuse to buy records but this is a great introduction to bands!”
While it’s amusing to hear David Byrne sing “this is for the old tennis balls and the new ones,” there are many cases where the artists’ impressions of the material seem to opt against retaining the humour. But as Byrne was quick to point out, these lyrics can also be “strangely moving, romantic and sincerely emotional.” “I think humour is such a general description,” says Shrigley. “It’s just an overall facet of what I do. I mean I never really intend my work to be comic but I’m aware it has humour to it. I think in terms of my ambition, I probably want my work to be poetic…and at the time when I’m doing it, it feels that way. But when I look back, it seems to have a lot more humour there than I’d intended in the first place, so it’s curious, really. I mean I’m aware that what I’m doing is kind of funny and serves little other purpose for a lot of people, but for me there is a lot more there. I’m probably trying to be more profound, so I’m pleased he feels that way. I guess it means that David Byrne gets it!”
Whether we really ‘get’ it or not, it’s not unusual to feel like Shrigley has struck some sort of chord. To find yourself erupting into laughter, aware that you probably shouldn’t, creates the effect of an exclusive experience…a moment you’ve shared with the artist in recognising the absurdity of the world. Such was the case with YACHT’s Jonah Bechtolt, who instantly felt that the artist’s words were written about him. “I suppose there is a personality there,” says Shrigley, when asked if fans assume they can relate to him based on what they see. “My work has been written through the point of view of a character which I’ve created and I suppose people identify with that character and its peculiarities. Maybe when you’re writing in the first person, that lends itself to people identifying with the personality of the work. It’s kind of gratifying that people feel that way because it means you’re communicating. When you’re a fine artist these days, you’re always being accused of your work having an aspect of the emperor’s new clothes and not being anything but accessible, so for me that’s quite rewarding when people feel that way.”
Such is the conviction of these ‘peculiarities’ that Shrigley’s work is often considered ‘outsider art’. In reality, it’s merely an aesthetic fascinated by social dysfunction, reproducing the streak of eccentricity in all of us as deformed, vulgar-looking figures. “I think it certainly looks like outsider art, but it obviously isn’t because I’m an insider. Perhaps I pretend to be an outsider artist. Like a lot of people I’m really fascinated by nutcases scribbling away in their padded cell,” he laughs. “It’s not difficult to see why that kind of art is interesting and accessible. I think ultimately, for me, my art has a sort of visual relationship to it, but…I don’t know, maybe the character or the voice I’ve created to narrate my stories should belong in an institution. Either way, I think it serves a manifold of purposes because it’s figurative, it’s in English and it looks like cartoons. Perhaps that it’s labelled as fine art as well means it can be a bit more municipal in its appropriation. It fills up the gaps because it can be high-brow and low-brow at the same time.”
Whether it’s childlike cruelty or sinister witticisms, Shrigley utilises a distinct voice that naturally causes you to wonder about the man behind it. But anyone hoping for a real life embodiment of these traits will be sorely disappointed. David Shrigley is eloquent, philosophical, humble and deadly serious about his work. “But I go to bed laughing and I wake up laughing,” he assures me. “Though there’s a limit to how much one should laugh, isn’t there? If you laugh all the time then people tend to think you’re an idiot, so I think you’ve got to keep a lid on it after a certain point. If you’re laughing hysterically throughout the day, especially if you have a job like a doctor, it’d be a bit dramatic. Still, I think it’s quite healthy on a certain level of personal fulfilment to be able to amuse oneself. I don’t really get on with those who can’t. Growing up, I was one of those kids who could amuse themselves for a long time with a piece of string and nothing else, but all I can say is I think I’m mentally healthy,” he laughs.
Where, then, does the inspiration come from? The only possible explanation, I suggest, is that he spends his time riding public transport, eavesdropping his way to a wealth of Shrigley-isms. “I like to overhear conversations, yeah. But some annoy me immensely and you just want to interrupt and clarify the situation. You’ll say: ‘look, he’s right. Okay? There’s no disputing that. So just accept what he said and move on’. But more often there are certain things I see where, if you read them twice, they suddenly seem to take on a profundity they didn’t have before. Like when you’re on a computer and there’s a link that says: ‘why am I being asked for my password?’ You see that phrase in isolation and you think ‘yeah, I have to write that down…’ It’s just the way I perceive these things.”
It’s this mordant perception that has allowed Shrigley to carve out a niche for himself – one that will always attract naysayers and detractors. Whether or not the grandeur of this collaboration might legitimatise his art in their eyes, however, is a prospect he remains bashful about. “It makes me feel quite embarrassed, really,” says Shrigley. “I mean this is such a divine, wonderful thing to have been involved in. I guess there aren’t many artists who would end up in this situation so I feel lucky in that respect. How much it validates what I do, I don’t know. It’s very difficult to view your own work in objective terms. Your mum never tells you how to deal with things like that. I just want to provide a starting point for a debate, an idea that’ll rattle around in people’s heads that they’ll perhaps enjoy thinking about.”
It’s a starting point that exists somewhere amid insight and ambiguity, between morality and its playful confrontation…a fertile ground in Shrigley’s two-dimensional universe. And as the music will attest, it’s a place where there’s no shortage of food for thought.