A Whole Lotta Noise with Ben Brown September 19 2018
Ben Brown grew up around Manly through the glory years of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Drawing inspiration from his culturally rock-rich environment, his art imbibes the especially abundant surf, skate and punk rock scene through these times.
Ben has over three decades of experience: from his early twenties he’s been involved in screen printing from the get go, and his artistic career and style has grown up alongside his passion for music. Being formerly involved in bands around Manly, he has a great appreciation for true and passionate artists who are still kicking it in style.
We caught up with Ben to ask him about his life, his work and his upcoming show Queens of Noise.
We hear you’re a family man. How do you balance family, personal creativity and art?
It’s pretty easy, really. I’ve got two boys – one just turned ten and the other thirteen. I'm lucky that I do freelance commercial art for myself so that I can work loose hours. My wife’s a pilot for Qantas, so we both have super weird hours. It's easy for me to balance it all as I’ve been doing it for so long. I'm fifty-four now and I started when I was in my early twenties.
When did you become a full-time freelance artist, and what kind of work have you been creating over your career?
It was very gradual. I worked in a factory when I was straight out of school, working in t-shirt companies, drawing horrible tourist t-shirts. That's what gave me access to the art department. Then I made friends with people in bands, so I kind of just drifted off into the music world. By my late twenties was creating art for myself. It was still probably not for another ten years before I was able to take on jobs I really wanted to do, and projects that were more relevant to me. I grew up around surfing, skate boarding and punk rock, so it's always the sort of style that I did. And skulls never go out of style.
Where do you think your appreciation for rock was born?
Compared to my kids, there was less media around when I was young. There was just telly and music – those were the things you were into and that was pretty much it. There wasn’t gaming, streaming and everything else there is these days. The rock culture was probably stronger during my childhood. I remember that my brother, who was five years older than me, was into cool artists like Jim Hendrix. I got into it because of him, and naturally gravitated to it – and have ever since.
What mediums do you use? Can you tell us about your exploration into the digital realm?
I started using computers as soon as they came out. I was on a Mac as soon as I could, and was making vector art from the start. Recently, I've been drawing on a tablet. I always liked drawing with black ink and pens and brushes, but now I really like digital, too.
I grew up around screen printing and posters – I think it's reflected in my line-based art. I always liked thick black lines in screen printing. Ever since working digitally, I’ve made my artwork look like it was printed twenty years ago.
I think tablets are an easy quick step and they’re fun to use. And it’s just good to create on, you know Andy Warhol using Polaroids and things was so radical in the day but these days it’s kind of quaint and cool. I do like the whole idea of painting and fine art – and I still draw on paper a lot – but I like the trashy side of it too, with computers and illustration.
What does your creative space look like and what kind of albums would we be hearing in the background of your studio?
I’ve got a really good space – downstairs rumpus room that’s under the house. I listen to everything these days! I was listening to The Replacements yesterday, and I tend to listen to The Runaways. (I guess that's where some of the inspiration for this show came from – I just always liked Joan Jett.) I was also listening to Queens of the Stone Age. I was going to see them live, so I thought I’d give their album a good thrashing beforehand.
You have an exhibition coming up with Outré Gallery. What made you decide to focus on solely female musicians for Queens of Noise?
I've always liked girls in bands. When I was younger and playing in bands, I thought it was so cool to see girls rocking out on stage. Rock is so male-dominated. Girls in the surfing scene are just as cool – they're like, "Fuck this, I'm not sitting around watching those guys, I'm doing it myself." Female voices are amazing, even for the really heavy stuff. One of the bands I’ve been listening to a lot in the last few years is Acid King, which is full on doom metal, but it's this mad girl singing and it just sounds a lot better than a guy would sound in that sort of music. You know women are at the forefront of all that now – there's been a concerted, organised push for women to be heard in the music industry.
What made you chose these particular six female musicians?
When I started the portraits, I posted one or two on Instagram and said "I'm thinking of doing this show of all girl rockers, who would you choose?" The response was phenomenal. I decided then that I’ll just have to make it women that I’ve listened to and liked and had some kind of connection with.
So many people were saying Wendy O Williams from The Plasmatics. She’s pretty rad, sort of post-punk, never wore a top and just really out there crazy.
I always liked Adalita from Magic Dirt. She’s the epitome of a rock idol. I've followed Adalita since she started. She’s got longevity, coolness, and good songs. The people that have stayed in it and managed to kick on is pretty admirable.
A friend suggested Kim Gordon. I love Sonic Youth. I’ve always listened to them and I’ve seen them play a lot so she was an obvious starter.
PJ Harvey – she’s just a real full on artist. I admire her so much. The way she can change so much and just be so creative is amazing. She once said, "I just wanted to make a really good pop record and have that shiny perfect record. And I did that and.. I’ll just move on now." How many people can do stuff like that?
Patti Smith – she’s the same. They’re humanitarian brainy smart people that happen to do music and poetry. I came to her through her husband Fred 'Sonic' Smith because we were just MC5 freaks as kids. I'm a fan of Patti Smith's early records too, but as a person she’s amazing.
I’ve always loved Blondie because she just looks so good, so New York and so fashion. She’s been cool since I was really young.
I always loved The Runaways as a band – they just sound really fucking cool and they still do whenever I listen to them. I think they’re kind of better after Cherie Curry left and Joan Jett started singing. It’s just her singing, they’ve cut down to a four piece and it’s tougher and just really rocking, really cool LA rock.
You’ve recently illustrated a poster for Queens of the Stone Age. Tell us how you felt doing a commission for such a big tour, and about other poster work you’ve done.
Doing a poster for Queens of the Stone Age was really cool, because I've always been a fan.
I used to do tour posters for heaps of bands, including Nirvana, Mudhoney and Sonic Youth, Silverchair. Since 2009, I've created merchandising posters for Pearl Jam, Blink 182, the Pixies – all those 90s bands. It’s really fun doing posters like that where you really concentrate on the art. You used to get promoters saying, "Can you tone that down a bit? It's about the band, not about the art." These days it’s about making a cool poster.
I’m never sure if artists are that keen about being drawn as an undead skeleton. You wonder, "How will you feel about seeing yourself dead?" I’m always a bit conscious about how people would react. I can imagine someone like PJ Harvey being a bit like, "Jesus, what the hell is that all about? Weirdo Australians."
Thanks for sharing your inspirations and insights Ben, we'll look forward to seeing you at the exhibition.
The man himself Ben Brown will be flying down from Sydney to join us this Friday, come on down to the gallery to see the Queens of Noise in the flesh.
Queens of Noise by Ben Brown
Opening 6:00pm Friday, 21 September