Tuesday, January 17, 2012

David Lester Interview

(photo: Jack DeGuiseppi)
DAVID LESTER interview
conducted via e-mail
by Dan Cohoon

Dan Cohoon: How did Mecca Normal come about? Talk about what was going on in music/art at the time that inspired you to start a band.
David Lester: I met Jean Smith while we were both doing graphic design in the production department of a weekly newspaper. So in a way, our collaboration started then, nearly 30 years ago. We were both visual artists (Jean is an excellent painter) and we shared an interest in hearing live music, which at the time included a lot of hardcore punk bands. I was also designing album covers and posters for some of these bands, most notably D.O.A. There was a very active, radical political scene in Vancouver at the time, which was reflected in the lyric content of many of the cities punk bands. Jean and I took inspiration from this convergence of music and politics by deciding to start our own band. But it would be a band without drums or bass. We wanted to challenge the very notion of what makes a band, and demonstrate that a single guitar, a voice and ideas could unleash a powerful fury against social injustice.

(Cover Art)
DC: I love the minimal set up of electric guitar and voice. David, what is your rig set up like? What did you start off playing? I was watching some videos, I love the way you play your guitar as percussion instrument.
DL: For the first several years of Mecca Normal I used only a Boss Distortion pedal. It was either on or off. I played through a Music Man amp to record our first album and have since used a variety of amps, depending on where we are recording. I also love Fender Twin Reverbs. My guitar has always been a Guild electric, series S300-D, which is a model that was built in 1977.

By limiting the palette to guitar and voice, a musician is challenged to be creative in the extreme. Each time I set out to make a new song it feels like it will be the first song I’ll ever write. What can I discover with the guitar, where will it go? I feel the terror and the thrill. This has led me to play the guitar as percussion, or with a knife, a paintbrush, or a flashlight. It is important for me to not become musically complacent. Though, I have expanded my sound with a few pedals, including Boss Digital Delay, Emerald Echo, Boss Acoustic Simulator and Digitech Distortion Factory.

Art Work: David Lester
DC: If you were told you would still be doing this for nearly a quarter century when you started what would you have thought?
DL: We didn’t have a long-term plan. Mecca Normal has become an exciting adventure built on the virtue of action. The action of making songs, recording and releasing records, and touring. Before we knew it, our history had taken shape. We came to realize, that there is no reason to stop doing what you love. But it does require mental and physical stamina to work in an art form that is always demanding “the latest thing.” This is where the idea of longevity kicks in and gives an artist the necessary perspective on viewing their work and life. Life ultimately, is not about the “latest thing”, it is so much more interesting than that.

Jean and I work together and separately in and outside music, but all of it ends up intersecting eventually. With my graphic novel, Jean created an adaptation that included a performance by Mecca Normal. Involving Mecca Normal made perfect sense because Louise, the political artist in the book is a strong female character. Not unlike Jean herself in terms of dynamism. In the last year Mecca Normal released a single on K Records called Malachi, which is an anti-war song about a man who committed a political act that ended in his death, which is not unlike the fictional death of a protestor that occurs in my book.

My poster series “Inspired Agitators” about historical figures who tried to positively effect progressive change became an inspiration itself for Jean and I to create our “How Art & Music Can Change the World” presentation. This led us to perform in classrooms, libraries and bookstores and to discover that this is not such a weird thing for a punk duo to do.

DC: Your music is very Personal and Political. You sometimes get lumped in with the Riot Girls, which I don't think is fair. How do you feel about your connection to that movement?
DL: In our presentation “How Art & Music Can Change the World”, we point to the importance that music played in Riot Grrrl’s development as a social movement. Live bands became an instant metaphor that showed the power of girls and women. Though we were never a riot grrrl band, it seemed amazing that they were inspired by what we were doing, particularly with our songs “I Walk Alone”, “Man Thinks Woman” and “Strong White Male” and things actually did change. That's how we became convinced that art and music can change the world, because it happened to us.

DC: Tell me about your new Graphic Novel the “Listener” How long have you worked on it and how has it evolved?
The Listener has two main story threads. One is the true story of the last democratic election to take place in Germany before Hitler seized power. And the other is a fictional story of a female artist who makes a piece of art that inspires political action that ends in tragedy. The connection between the two stories is art and politics. Aesthetics were an important part of Nazi ideology, while in my fictional story, the artist believes the blending of art with politics is a valuable part of progressive social change.

Art Work: David Lester
I got the idea for The Listener after stumbling on a brief account of the election in a history book about Hitler. After more research, I realized the story of the election had never been fully explored in English. I thought it would make an incredibly exciting project to bring to life as a graphic novel. This led to my first draft.

Art Work: David Lester
I researched, wrote and illustrated the novel over a period of seven years. Of course during that time, Mecca Normal wrote, recorded and toured an album called The Observer and we gave lectures and had art exhibits.

Art Work: David Lester

DC: Is there something about the graphic novel form that lends it self to this story?
DL: The graphic novel form lends itself particularly well to the story in The Listener because my main character, Louise, is an artist and so it becomes significant to depict her story visually. To show Louise seemed more appropriate then describing her. Throughout the book, I saw the scenes I was writing in visual terms. The text was written as a film script might be written. The scenes were built graphically around the text and sometimes the text was built around a visual idea.

DC: What can you do visually that you can't do musically and visa versa?
DL: I approach both music and visual art with a similar aesthetic sense. As a guitarist you don’t have words to use, but you can express emotions through the physical movement of the body as you play and at the same time, sound texture can be found with six strings pressed against a piece of wood, not unlike the sense of texture achieved with the build up of paint on a canvas. I often think visually when I play live and I often think of the sweeping gestures of music when I draw.

DC: What artist musically/visually were you interested in when you started out? Who is doing interesting work today?
DL: Visually I was always a fan of the photomontages of John Heartfield and the drawings of George Grosz and of course the paintings of Picasso and Matisse. For The Listener I was influenced by the film techniques of German expressionism and film noir, and the work of Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Welles. I also take great inspiration from the paintings and drawings by Jean. I admire the fluidity in her visual art and I applied that sensibility to my work in The Listener. I am also a fan of the graphic novel work of Joe Sacco.

Musically I find myself discovering work that isn’t current. Particularly classical composers such as George Crumb, Mahler, Shostakovich, and the film scores of Michael Nyman and Bernard Herrmann. Of course I’ve always admired Fugazi, Poison Girls, The Slits, Nina Simone, Scrawl, MC5, Phil Ochs, and most recently Minneapolis band Brute Heart on M'lady's Records.

DC: What does the future hold for Mecca Normal and your solo artistic endeavors?
DL: Music is Mecca Normal’s focal point, and we our excited about new songs we write but we have also gone beyond our music by incorporating other art forms. Jean has published two novels, and is currently finishing a fourth manuscript, at the same time as she continues to make short films and new paintings. Of course, it is fun for me to see that all of her art reflects the storytelling skills she brings to lyric writing.

I’m set to begin writing my next graphic novel. Jean has set up The Black Dot Museum of Political Art (the first exhibit was held in Olympia, WA in 2010). Jean and I continue to collaborate on a weekly text/illustration series for Magnet Magazine. We have plans to record our 14th album and tour in the fall of 2012.

We continue to change what Mecca Normal is by simply deciding what we want to do and how we want to do it.


Mecca Normal on K Records
The Listener
Mecca Normal Newsletter
Jean Smith Art

"How Art & Music Can Change the World" video presentation

Buying The Listener

David Lester -- Inspired Agitators Posters
 Mecca Normal on Facebook

Magnet Magazine  weekly column by David & Jean

"How Art & Music Can Change the World" lecture
The Black Dot Museum of Political Art
Jean Smith Writer

Jean Smith Painter

Mecca Normal Malachi 7” 

Blue Sky & Branches live 2011:
After The Next, recorded with Calvin Johnson for K:
Mecca Normal playing live on a Corin Tucker Band song 2011:
Beaten Down
Throw Silver
I Walk Alone: Directed by Jean Smith
Strong White Male / Man Thinks Woman


The Listener -- the process: