We sit down for an exclusive interview with musical legends and artists Brian Travers from UB40 and John Illsley from Dire Straits, who unveiled the artist proofs of their album covers for Beautiful You and For the Many at the Kempinski Hotel Bahía in Estepona on the 22nd of November 2018. These artworks are part of an exhibition of 20 pieces of the artists’ works, which will be on display at the hotel until the 10th of January 2019.
Brian Travers is perhaps best known as being a founder member and saxophonist of the reggae band UB40. He has spent over 35 years both recording and touring during which they have sold over 120 million albums. Brian was educated at Birmingham’s Moseley School of Art. After 20 years residing in the rural Worcestershire, he returned to his roots in Moseley where he now paints ‘abstract’ canvases, Perspex sheets, stainless steel and creates painted glass and ceramic objet d’art.
John Illsley is an English musician who rose to fame as the bass guitarist of the critically acclaimed band Dire Straits. With Dire Straits, John has been the recipient of multiple BRIT and Grammy Awards and a Heritage Award. As one of the founding band members, with Mark Knopfler, his brother David and drummer Pick Withers, John played a major role in the development of the Dire Straits’ sound. During their time together as Dire Straits they sold over 120 million albums and toured extensively across the world. When Dire Straits took a couple of well-earned breaks, John released two albums: Never Told a Soul (1984) and Glass (1988). When Dire Straits finished touring in 1993 John became heavily involved in the art world. Having carved a reputation for himself as a painter, John had solo exhibitions in London, New York, Sydney and across Europe. He is currently working on a new solo album which will be released next year, entitled Coming Up for Air.
What brought you both together for this exhibition? How did the idea come about?
John – Brian and I did a small show in London earlier this year and we enjoyed each other’s company and paintings, then this opportunity came up to do another.
Brian – Adam Sargent my curator heard about John Illsley of Dire Straits, the fact that like myself he plays music and paints, and suggested a show. He’s a lovely guy and understood where we were coming from; we are very different expressionists both as musicians and artists and of course we both understand how it feels to spend a lifetime performing to huge crowds. When we are painting it’s just you and the expression. No audience, no one to listen to or play along with; just you and the paint, the medium… and most importantly the idea. It’s very therapeutic for me at least, and like music, ‘it hurts no one’. It’s a very peaceful way to express oneself and hugely satisfying even if it’s only the artist feeling the vibe.
What is your favourite medium of expression?
J: Oil is my favourite medium; it has an elasticity that is both unpredictable and exciting.
B: I use any kind of paint, from oils, to enamels, to acrylics, to household emulsion, to mud, to sand, to gold dust, diamond dust – anything that makes the mark I’m searching for. I like to think of myself as an abstract expressionist. An image of a face or landscape is not hugely satisfying for me – it either looks like the subject or it doesn’t! I’m more interested in the abstract as a means to provoke thought in a way that hasn’t been seen before. I make sculptures, pictures in the sand, scratches on rocks… I’m still searching for new and innovative ways to express my message. I’ve used dirt from the First World War trenches in Flanders Fields to add authenticity and 100-year-old DNA to a painting commemorating and remembering the men and women who died in that war. I’ve used coal dust from a mountain of coal slag from the site of a disaster in 1966 where a whole mountain of coal waste collapsed onto a school in a Merthyr Tydfil in Wales killed 140 children. Right now I’m making paintings from thousands of miniature plastic soldiers on canvas. I may melt them with a hot flame, I’m not sure yet. I’m still searching for the investment to make bronze public art in celebration of the world’s beautiful people and their achievements. So in answer to your question, I’m still searching.
How does this form of the arts differ from musical composition, if it all?
B: Great question. They are incredibly similar in as much as the artist tries to express himself to the viewer or listener. We try to let the audience feel our feelings in a way they can relate to and sympathise or celebrate with us; let them know we are like-minded souls. Music being the most abstract of all the arts, you can’t see it, you can’t touch, but it touches us in the most beautiful way. The abstract exists purely to provoke thought.
What first inspired you to paint/compose?
J: Pierre Bonnard and Chuck Berry.
B: I’ve painted and drawn since I was a small child, mostly to make my mother happy – she always made me feel good about the pictures. As they say ‘nothing succeeds like success’, so it pushed me into doing it more often. At 11 years old I attended the Moseley Road school of Art in Birmingham until I was 16, then girls, music and exploring life took over! But I never stopped painting. My classmates from art school and I started a little band. As we couldn’t get jobs back in those dark depressed days in the 1970s, we called the band UB40 which stood for ‘Unemployment Benefit form 40’ – the dole card that we and a few million others used to claim a meagre living to simply survive! As luck would have it, our first record Food For Thought was a worldwide hit. 40 years and 140 million record sales later… of course being irresponsible lovers of life we spent all the money, but we still tour globally to sell-out crowds. The record business has changed dramatically but I still live and feel privileged to be a musician. Now I get the time – usually when everyone else is asleep between 3am to sunrise – to paint. In solitude lies solemnity.
What led you onto the path of music? What led you back to art?
J: Music had been important to me since I was 14 years old, but despite being in many bands off and on for 10 years it was meeting Mark that made it make sense and led us to create Dire Straits.
I never went to art school, but I had a wonderfully inspiring teacher who opened my eyes to looking at the world in a unique way. Dire Straits stopping performing in 1993 drove me back to painting.
What sort of works have you been exhibiting around the world?
J: Mostly abstract, some still lifes, and guitar paintings and prints.
B: Every show I paint I attempt to move 180 degrees away from the last show in style. I’ve been called 27 painters in one! I keep innovating and changing to keep myself interested and keep learning. Repeating oneself can trap your art in a cul de sac of no return. So if I paint an abstract show of 3 metre wide pictures in technicolour, it will inevitably be followed by a series of smaller black and white figurative studies. The subject matter can be inspired by a news item, a joke in the pub, a sad or happy story on the radio, a long lost love, a child laughing with his or her friends, a beautiful kind gesture overheard in a public place… I’m never sure where or when the next inspiration will take control.
Does music influence your artwork? How so?
J: Well it’s always playing when I’m painting, so I think it has some influence on the work.
B: Of course. I play music when I paint; for example, Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez recorded by Gil Evan and Miles Davies inspired 8 large abstracts called Sketches of Spain. I tried to depict the movement, the atmosphere, the inspired rhythm that’s created by flamenco dancers as they break the still air that is around us, using only red, yellow and black.
How do musical/artistic styles of the 21st century differ to those of the 20th?
B: In a million ways, but the same 12 notes are used by Beethoven, Paco de Lucia, Segovia, Elvis Zoreskey, Pablo Cassals, Mozart, Justin Beiber, and The Beatles, which goes to show how very abstract music as a form of artistic expression is, and it should always change. Our job as musicians is to always discover new ways of playing the notes; those precious gems that wait patiently for us musicians to discover them. Music never hurts anyone, even when it makes us cry.
How do you decide on the artwork for the covers for your albums?
B: It’s always different. For many years I have purchased complete shows by an artist and used them for the whole campaign around selling a record. I was asked by my bandmates to paint our latest album to be released on February 8th 2019. The album’s called For the Many after Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party tag line ‘for the many, not the few’. I painted a skyline to remember the victims of the Grenfell Tower block inferno in London that killed all the residents due to government neglect of the less privileged. I painted it with an abstract explosion of bravery, tenacity, love, pain, fear, resignation spilling over the city. We are releasing 40 limited editions of the album cover artwork to celebrate UB40’s 40th anniversary.
In answer to your question, I look for inspired art images to wrap our art in. Who needs to see musicians’ faces? We’ve all seen them before…
How would Sultans of Swing convert to canvas?
J: Interesting question… Maybe black and white, in a smoky atmosphere.
If you were to compose a song about Gibraltar, what genre and tempo would you choose? What sort of words might form the lyrics?
J: Pretty laid back, and celebrating culture and history.
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This exhibition is part of the Kempinski Hotel Bahía’s Art Series of events. The exhibition of 20 pieces of Brian Travers’ and John Illsley’s works, will be on display at the hotel until the 10th of January 2019. Free guided tours of the exhibition can also be arranged.
The Kempinski Hotel Bahia in Estepona celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. The luxury frontline beach resort has 145 rooms (including 17 suites) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and features subtropical gardens and pools, as well as trendy culinary concepts and an exclusive Kempinski Spa. For more information, visit kempinski.com/en/marbella/hotel-bahia.