It would be something of an understatement to say Peter Doherty has so-far lived a “colorful” life. Award-winning teenage poetry, forming fabled indie-rockers The Libertines, well-documented brushes with the law - prison and rehab - kicked out of The Libertines, forming his own band Babyshambles, unannounced “guerilla gigs”, re-uniting with The Libertines... it goes on. It's hard to keep up with him.
Yet throughout it all, 36-year-old Doherty remains a creative force. As The Libertines tour again in 2016, he continues his other pre-occupation: creating visual art. Through his official website albionrooms.com, the London-based musician showcases his canvas work (sampled below). Gibson UK in London is exhibiting a selection of Doherty’s artwork until 9th March.
A painting musician is not new: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, John Squire and many more have all painted impressively.
In a rare interview, Peter talked to Gibson.com about the relationships between the visual and musical arts...
What came first, growing up? Music/lyrics/poetry or the visual arts?
“Poetry, I suppose.....when I was growing up it was Rudyard Kipling, Wilfrid Owen, Rupert Brooke and Shakespeare.”
You are one of many famed musical artists who have also painted – Dylan, Bowie, McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Miles Davis, Kim Gordon, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Ronnie Wood et cetera. Do you separate the two “disciplines” as it were, or do they influence each other?
“They are separate. I don't think my art is really connected to anything else. Art is completely separate from my life, so radical, there's so much potential to explore new things, much more so than my music.
“My musical artistry, if you like, is very linear and traditional. I write songs on guitar and I play guitar. But there are no limits to what you can do with a bit of gaffer tape and ink...”
Is painting a way of “relaxing”? Or is it something as intense for you as songwriting?
“I don't know, really... I don't think I like to think about these things too much really in this way, don't like to analyse things too much. It's impossible to think about what songwriting is to me really - it just is, it's just something that I do and that I have to do, to keep a little flame alive inside me. It's like staying alive or food. I have to have worked on something,... or something in my voice memos on my iPhone, for example. Until I get my own studio.
“Painting isn't something that relaxes me. In fact, it really winds me up sometimes, but then I get extremely rewarded. So I wouldn't say it was relaxing, but it's extremely rewarding. I get a lot of pleasure from it when I'm into something.
“I get an awful lot of satisfaction when someone else likes my music. I find it very difficult to discuss my paintings, because I never really believe people like them, you know...? If I hadn't have made a name through songwriting I doubt I would've sold any art at all. So I'm a bit wary of all that.”
Your lyrics/poems can be very vivid: yet, to me, your paintings are quite muted in palette terms. Can you explain this?
“It's just limited resources, really. I don't really plan projects, so when it comes to actually getting something down you've got to use whatever is to hand... But, yeah, muted palettes. That's a good point actually, good point!”
Can you cite notable influences as a visual artist? And, do you have any favourite “music” painters yourself?
“No, not really. There was this one fella I was reading about in The TLS (The Times Literary Supplement) and I quite liked him. And a lot of the things William Burroughs did, cutting up language. And I use a lot of writing [in my artwork] if you look.
“There's the odd line from important writers to me, like (American poet) Emily Dickinson. I find a lot of her metaphors are based in nature and to do with the sea, her soul being a little boat out at sea, and I relate to that. I've been doing that recently, using that image...'what hungry wave licked me against the rock'...”
Any thoughts on music/color/word association, and the so-called “condition” Synaesthesia? I am intrigued by this: Andy Summers (ex-guitarist in The Police) has it. And he writes music/colors accordingly. When he plays he sees colors...
“I haven't really got any thoughts on it, apart from I'm always interested in the way people visualise every day like a calendar. When people think of the past what is they see in their head. Sometimes I do worry if I do get that taste in my mouth to do with ideas sometimes it like someone is stuffing something into my mouth and I can't close my mouth around the thought...that's quite similar?
“I call it the 'Christmas Nightmare' I used to have when I was a kid - at the same time as the walls are closing, your head's expanding at the same time.”
Let's talk guitars. What can you say about the appeal of your main guitars? Any other favourites for writing or recording?
“Old Gibsons, really... you can't go wrong with an old Gibson. Beautiful sound.
“The problem was I listened to a lot of my early influences – even The Smiths, who had quite a clear guitar sound – I listened to on cassettes and crappy headphones so any slightly fuzzy or overdriven sound was always tripled. And now that sound has just become, in my head, the ultimate sound.
“I remember with Carl Barât, [fellow Libertine], we used to go and buy bootleg tapes from [London's] Camden Market and listen to them on the tape recorder...I listened to “Daydream” by The Lovin' Spoonful [sings melody] and through the old tape and the old tape recorder I heard this noise that I was chasing for ages.
“Problem was, we couldn't really afford Gibson back then so I bought a 'Givson', an Indian-made Gibson copy with the same font...
“I did actually think it was a Gibson. But it soon got pointed out to me that it wasn't - no wonder it was only £30. But I just wanted to replicate that sound really, that buzzy, bluesy sound and with a harmonica as well, it was great. And I used to have this fear of what I called a 'bedroom guitar' sound - a terrible sound, you know, with electric strings on acoustic guitar and sometimes some early demos. It would always be that metallic guitar sound... yeah, it's a big fear...”
Who are your favorite songwriters and guitarists?
“I like a lot of old blues guitarists; Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt... I like the traditional stuff they'd do and then claim it as their own. I like a lot of country and western, things like Merle Haggard, Hank Williams. And Django Reinhardt. I love The Beatles, great songwriters.
“I like [The Smiths'] Morrissey and Marr... I've got a picture in my head of those two sat down in the kitchen writing songs and I can almost hear it - must have been a really special time. I can imagine Johnny Marr lost in his riffs and then like sort of looking up and wondering what Morrissey's warblin' on about. They had all angles covered, really, and they were both complete craftsmen. Morrissey never stopped writing great songs.”
Do you have long term plans for The Libertines, or is it “take it as it comes”?
“Yeah, I have long term plans for The Libertines. And it is to take it as it comes...”
Peter Doherty's website – Albion Rooms.
Gibson Brands' London showroom is at 61-62 Eastcastle Street, London, W1W 8NQ.