Equaliser London

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Jack Featherstone: To Design for Sound

You have probably seen his work before. It could have been on Holden’s The Inheritors, on a few other Border Community records, or while queuing for the toilet at a Hydra party with nothing to do but to stare at posters. Jack Featherstone is a designer and an artist whose practice mostly focuses on designing for music. To design for sound is a goal that he set himself right after graduating from Chelsea a few years back. We met up in an overpriced Shoreditch pub to chat about how this decision has treated him so far.

Jack’s first solo exhibition at Peckham Springs just ended last weekend. It was his first attempt to produce something only for himself and it was pretty successful. He had one of the pieces stolen, only to find it the next day on top of a gallery toilet. “That’s what happens when you open a gallery next to a bar.”

He is fully independent, and operates from a studio he shares with three friends. There is something about his practice that is easy to relate to for any struggling creative – it involves a lot of compromises and is all about finding the right balance between work that you love doing and work that pays. But most of all, it’s about music. “It’s the most important thing to me. I always wanted to make it look good and interact with it. There is so much bad design for music around!”

To design for sound means to connect two entirely different things, to translate the ear for the eye. It is not easy and there is something really impure about it when not done right. “It’s about understanding the music and the artists behind it. How much effort, time, and love went into making the record. You need to match it all as the designer. You are dealing with the fundamentals of sound and vision, while at the same time you deal with culture and style. There is the process of listening to sounds, the science and the aesthetic experience. Then there is the cultural aspect, that’s where the music comes from. Reggae is from Jamaica and the artwork has to work with that culture. Same with techno, it comes from a culture too.”

Last year, Featherstone completed his biggest work yet. He was approached by Border Community, who he has been working with for over 4 years now, to art direct James Holden’s The Inheritors. He calls it “a perfect project”, an album that creates its own world, one of those records that sound unlike anything else. “I’ve been listening to Holden and going to see him DJ for a very long time. As soon as I heard the music, I understood where he was coming from. I actually wanted to do some art that touched on the idea of ancient, primal Britain – which is very much what the campaign is based on, conceptually. I did my foundation in Falmouth, in Cornwall, where we used to go to raves in caves. We were all listening to Aphex, and when you are in Cornwall, there is this sense of being in a timeless place, a place that is kind of separate from the rest of the country. James also talked about Cornwall in that sense. It’s kind of like a reimagining of history – like, what would happen if there was a different version of electronic music.”

I saw Holden play all night in Corsica Studios a few months back. I had only listened to the album once or twice before that, but on the night I heard a lot of music I had no idea could, or does, exist. Along with a few mixes he put out around that time, it really expanded The Inheritors. “It’s about this idea of trance – not this psytrance or Tiesto bullshit, but trance as this basic human desire to listen to music together. James can really create that with the way he mixes and chooses records.”

The recording of Holden’s new live set in Paris was circling the web a few weeks ago, and the visuals were a prominent part of it. When asked how that came about, Jack explains that it all came from the Renata video that he directed. “It was literally 31 days of work, and it soon became obvious that I could have made 10 videos out of what we had. We had so much material that we could do the whole live show with it. So now I have my set just as they have theirs. Each tune has its own video, and it’s very much live. I have to react to what they do. It’s not quantised, it’s not set, they often go over by minutes, and it’s all improvised.”

I mention Border Community’s Peckham Palais party and while Featherstone has enjoyed the night, he spins off to mention The End, a legendary West London club, that shut its doors in 2009. “They were the best parties I’ve been too. One of the best sound systems I’ve ever heard, in this tunnel. The booth was really special, it was almost within the crowd. The vibe was crazy – Holden played often, and he was kind of like a wizard. The mixes he was pulling off were just crazy, I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing really matches up to those nights for me.”

It is impressive how Jack shuffles between ideas and audiences. I ask him about balancing it all. “It’s hard – you can’t make a living out of doing work purely in music. Especially in a city like London, it’s becoming harder and harder. I begin to question whether there even is a real art scene here anymore. There are not many artists out there who are focused purely on their art work, who don’t need part-time jobs.”

When I suggest that the struggle can add humility and emotion to your work, he points out that “there is the struggle, but then there is impossible. If you are an artist, working 5 days a week to pay rent, then only having one day a week to do your own stuff – you’re not gonna be a good artist. Doing my show was money down the drain in one sense, but in another sense, it was really rewarding.”

I recall a trip to Oslo last year, where I saw a talk by this Norwegian artist, Silja Leifsdottir. She mentioned multiple funding options offered to artists by the government. It’s common practice. “I’m tempted so many times to just fucking move to Berlin. I’ve lived there for two months with my girlfriend. We got a studio, and just worked there together every day. It’s only just possible there, but in London you have to be really rich to do that.”

Another option for a freelancer like Jack is to expand his practice and start a studio. “There is no future in designing for music, it’s always only a hobby, a pleasure. Otherwise it turns into a production line. I don’t want that, I don’t want to design for Sony, Universal, the next pop artist, I couldn’t give a fuck about it.”

It’s getting a bit cold and our glasses are empty, so we go and grab another drink. Afterwards, I mention how I feel like there’s a lot that can be done in terms of joining the visual arts with music. Tate is doing things, ICA is doing things, and while a “multidimensional experience” is a bit of a buzzword, things are kind of buzzing. “Yeah, Tate x Warp was fantastic, but nobody was making any money out of that. There are so many DJs and producers out there who aren’t making any money, are releasing for labels who aren’t making any money, but are fucking sick. But in a place like London, how much more expensive can a city get before it kills a scene? At least if you’re a DJ, you can go play a show for £500, but I barely get paid that for a record, and that takes me like, two weeks! Sometimes it just feels like I’m a leech on the side of a dead industry. But music’s worth it, a life lived making music and consuming it is a really good one.”

As a visual artist who focuses on sound so much, I wonder if Jack is doing what he’d like to be doing. “To me, visual art is less important than music. If someone said, would you rather be stuck on a desert island with a James Holden record, or a painting by Sol Lewitt – obviously it’s the record. It’s something that’s built within us. It’s always gonna be there, and hopefully people will always be doing it for the right reasons.” He mentions between the words that he is trying to produce music himself. “Yeah, it’s rubbish. I’ve been wanting to make music for years, and I was always worried what I would make, thinking it would be quite dark. It turns out, it’s quite dark. A lot of my visual stuff is quite positive, but my music is just dystopian. I’m bored of music that is happy, I can’t really listen to disco anymore.”

“I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, but my favourite is techno. I think it’s positive – it’s this idea of, like, a massive middle finger to the world. Fuck you, we’re here – we’re getting lost in the moment, forgetting about your jobs; just there, living in this time, in this very short amount of time on this planet. That’s what techno is to me. I struggle to find any other music that gives me that feeling.”

I can relate, but at the same feel like techno loses so much in any other setting than a club. “Yeah. Its ultimate manifestation is definitely in the club, it just works best with other people.”