“STEVEN CERIO” interviewed by Jen for THE POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL
1 What meaning do you hope people find in your work?
Meaning is a trap. You can only become enlightened by your own phenomena. I’m not a symbolist. I’m not concerned with communicating a specific thought or personal insight; I try to convey energy. I see my work like everyone else does. It confuses me in the same way it confuses the viewer when I do it correctly. What interests me about life and art isn’t systems or exacting communication, that’s someone else’s job. I’m interested in the freedom it finds for itself, its synchronicities, magical coincidences and strange overlapping of events. The more traveling I do, the more talking I do, the more drawings I do, the more ground I walk over the happier I am. That’s why I’m here to do. That’s what my work means.
2. Your drawings and illustrations have an intrinsically childlike sense of play. How have you developed this?
Increasingly since I began drawing seriously in my teens, the ideas I was dealing with revolved around glee and a preternatural harmony expressed in my art to this day. In 1998 Juxtapoz magazine described my efforts as an artist as techniques to “synthesize joy.” I have in fact always been fascinated at how images depicting joy and happiness are located almost entirely on products aimed at child consumers. I wanted to engage with this activity, while providing it to a larger demographic. I believe that our adult society is pleased with its irony, sardonic wit and grim prophecy which it presents as intellectual property while continuously overlooking “childish” joy and pleasures: the sensations that each child and adult crave in perpetuity. To Quote George Petros from his introduction to my article in Seconds Magazine “it sometimes seems a shame that his innocent abandon is wasted on sour, seen-it-all adult audience.” To the contrary, I’ve taken a strange pleasure in adults finding the dark irony and violence they crave so strongly in my work when it wasn’t drawn there. It reinforces my assessment of this behavior that repulses me so.
I have always chosen animals and personified objects to express the emotion and intelligence in my work whenever possible. A smile on a flower shows a happy flower, a smiling man carries with him the history and behavior of his species, which is a lot of extra baggage I don’t care to lug around in my art.
2. What inspires you?
I play music in continuity while I’m awake. I like long, eventful, dense but meditative pieces. Captain Beefheart, The Residents, Can, John Coltrane, Soft Machine and Henry Cow all excel at that. I get a lot of pleasure from my collection postcards of bridges, freeze frame photographs of splashing water, time lapse films, antique squeaky toys, and cereal boxes as well. When I need to recharge nothing does it better than a couple of weeks hiking and driving in Arizona. I mail myself home boxes of cacti, beautiful stones and any toy totem pole I can get my hands on. In two weeks I can usually shoot at least four to five thousand photos. South Western Arizona is the strangest and most beautiful experience you can get without traveling space or ingesting a weird hippy chemical.
3. The faces and animals in your work seem both diverse and highly stylized. Where do the wide-eyed, snaggle-toothed casts of characters come from?
They are cute little things trying to have fun, be happy and find enlightenment just like the rest of us but smooth and shiny like living gummy brand products. The cast comes to me one by one. I can’t force it, I’ve tried. They insinuate themselves into my sketches. They come from a place in my head where nothing bad ever happens.
4. Explain what “surrational’ is and how you employ the concept in your art.
I don’t believe a person can approach a more direct dialog with the world than through presenting one’s own iconography and visual fetishes. My reoccurring characters and coincidences are meant to conjure an affect in the viewer with an application of what I refer to as “magical coincidence.” Magical Coincidence is surrational decision making. Surrationality is the pure instinct in the act of creating uncalculated or ironic surrealism. It defies common rationality. Traditional surrealism utilized juxtaposition of disparate elements. The surrational decisions in my work are made by intuitive thought: intuitions that may confuse me while pleasing my sense of drama. I first decided to utilize this method. After a dream I had in which various “Magical Coincidences” occurred. In this dream I found myself kneeling in a muddy field with my arms elbow deep in the wet soil pulling one strange artifact out of the ground after another. Each object was a natural occurrence of vegetable and root growth that formed impossibly close likenesses to rabbits, giraffes including a realistic and highly detailed bust of Abraham Lincoln as well. I peered up at one point and was confronted with an immense rabbit made entirely of various different colored jellies. When the sun shined through her body it made beautiful colored projections all over my arms. I don’t claim to understand these cryptic dreams, nor do I try, but I do recognize the elation I felt. When I accomplish this technique correctly I feel the same sensation: a blend of enlightened confusion and gleeful discovery.
5. When did you begin drawing?
My Mom kept a series of dismembered head collecting, ten story tall green skinned witches I did in kindergarten. The first memory I have is drawing one of those pieces in magic marker. I’ve spent a lot of my life drawing since then. I took a break somewhere around nine or ten to prepare myself for a life as a fantastically eccentric botanist. I still fantasize about being a botanist one day! I have enough cacti and succulents to keep me busy with plants though.
6. If you created an illustration of your life so far, what would it look like?
I like to believe that every drawing I do is the complete sum of all of my experiences up to the very moment my newest piece is finished. I like to think that maybe falling off my bike in the second grade is in the drawing somewhere near to a memory of a delicious slice of lemon meringue pie I ate last week. I can’t see it but sometimes I can feel it. I do know one thing for sure though; it’ll have bumble bees all over it!
7. What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle in your artistic career?
To get my creativity gland to work in tandem with my business gland.
8. Describe the ‘zine scene and your involvement in it. I moved to NYC in 1989 and landed an assistant job at Psychedelic Solution Gallery. I grabbed a cheap apartment (they were all cheap back then) and got to work on my portfolio. I drew every night until I couldn’t focus, on lunch breaks and on the subway to and from work. Before any paying clients opened their doors to me I got my chops together contributing to a multitude of ‘zines and independent art and music magazines like EXIT and Chemical Imbalance. It was a very exciting time for me. I was published with many well known figures like Robert Williams, Joe Coleman and Raymond Pettibon which was quite thrilling for a twenty one year old suburban kid. I was hooked.
9. What future projects are you working on?
I’m working on two children’s books, putting the finishing touches on my web site (happyhomeland.com), illustrating the texts of thirty eight authors for my next book, designing a series of ipod shells for MacSkinz, teaching adjunct at Syracuse University, recording drum tracks for a cd with my band “Atlantic Drone Quartet” and preparing a new series of drawings for my next show.
10. What is your personal definition of Art?
Great art looks like, acts like and smells like a prayer to me and bad art looks like, acts like and smells like a curse, that’s how I meter it anyway.
Steven Cerio interviewed by Jeff Mack (via email September 2001)
J.M. In another interview, you mentioned Francis Bacon, a painter who went to
great lengths to distinguish his practice from that of an illustrator. He
seemed to feel you had to distort a form in order to covey a feeling
accurately, that rendering an object too literally would be illustrating
and therefore unconvincing. Do you agree with this?
CERIO: In his time period, yes. Of course I’ve seen his work used as illustrations for anger and anxiety in the last ten years. There’s that pecking order-gallery artists look down on illustrators and illustrators look down on cartoonists. I can’t worry about that. I paint, illustrate, do animation and sculpt. It isn’t a sport no matter how they approach it; no one is going to win.
J.M. All of your forms are distorted yet there’s never an object that is
indecipherable. You seem always to return to a certain literalism. It’s an
interesting line to walk. Can you explain your desire to represent very
CERIO: I’m in love with this world but I project enough sensations and delusions of my own on it. It doesn’t need me to step on it too much. I think that when you mess with everyday items you get Magritte-esque effect. He wasn’t surreal he was ironic at best. Putting things where they don’t belong isn’t surreal, it’s ironic. Ironies, or the sharp contrast of execution, are the staple crops of rock and roll and prime time television. That’s what passes as clever with suburban housewives.
Symbolism and alphabets are used as substitutes for experience. Words and symbols are shortcuts, not living experiences or creatures. There is no such thing as “mere things.” A chair used as a symbol is far more demanding than a halo. Which is to say it demands more from the viewer, creating more “experience?”
J.M. To what extent are you interested in making a reality?
CERIO: Well, I’m not a realist so that’s my game. I didn’t choose to, but that’s what art and music are right? Coltrane said “the main thing a musician would like to do is to give the listener a picture of the things he senses in the universe.” Everyone has their own homemade universe of common sense. I adjust things to fit the way I crave them. I want them soft, sugary and occasionally squeaky like dolphin skin.. I don’t approach my art as invention, it’s more like acknowledgement because I already know every molecule. But I’m always looking for a new strand of DNA.
J.M. Animals are an ever present theme in your work.
CERIO: Yeah, they’re more interesting than people…physically and mentally. You can understand the actions of your own species but I can’t figure out my cats. Animals have Zen and we make embarrassing attempts to mimic it People learn how to build cars and bees build honeycombs instinctually. I ‘ll draw a little girl now and then…but little boys kill frogs…little girls are harmless in comparison. Animals only harm when threatened or hungry except for one mammal aside from man and guess what species…gorillas, another primate suprise, suprise!! They will mangle acres of jungle out of boredom. I don’t think hedge hogs or sugar gliders make a habit out of that.
J.M. To what extent do to call your work fantasy?
CERIO: It’s just semantics but what the word ‘fantasy’ denotes to me is people daydreaming of a better world and life for themselves where they can enjoy complete control and admiration.That life usually incorporates spaceships, green women in skimpy bathing suits or swords. I’m not an escapist, not to that degree.
J.M. Do you feel there is ever a loss of integrity in terms of what your work means to you on a personal level if you have to make sure other people get it?
CERIO: An illustrator isn’t paid to have integrity. An illustrator is paid to sell an item, an article, or an idea for someone else. I think you compromise when you have an illustrative idea and ignore it because you are a color field painter. I think you compromise when you have an idea for a color field painting and you poo-poo it because you are an illustrator.
The tighter you fit into pigeon holes the better off you are. I wish I fit an established, comfy pigeonhole sometimes and had no other interests. Look at, say, Britney Spears. I may be wrong but I wouldn’t imagine that she cries herself to sleep at night because she never followed her dream to create the world’s largest popcorn sculpture. She fits the pop star mold to a “T”. I’ll never fit a pigeonhole like that…I say that with grief ‘cause boy that must be an easy ride. I believe people like that dream of their possible market and target group and lovingly dedicate all of their actions to it. I don’t believe they dream of reinventing any wheel so integrity plays no part in it. They just make sure that everyone understands them. They’re careful that soccer moms aren’t offended and middle aged moms won’t gasp when it leaks under their children’s door. Their aesthetic is so obvious and manipulative it frightens me. I’m horribly fascinated by pop culture. I have absolutely no understanding of it so I enjoy witnessing it. Lisa Frank notebooks, Hello Kitty clocks, shit…gimme more!
J.M. Your work looks strongly informed by the Surrealists, particularly Max
Ernst’s decalcomania paintings, Tanguy, Miro, and Dali’s Paranoid Critical
Method theories. Do any of these artists’ methods apply to you?
CERIO: The ‘joy’ in Miro’s work has always inspired me. Its lack of politics or comment is also inspirational; I feel the same way about Alexander Calder. The manifestos of surrealism affected me. Of course, I was already enjoying those freedoms and luxuries. They laid all of the track down before I was born. They taught me how to love my own phenomena and “you can only become enlightened by your own phenomena”like John Giorno said.
The first painting ever presented to me as a work by an artist and not a printed image was a Dali. My dad was a fan. Seeing as how I was 5 and it was the ‘summer of love’ it appealed to me immensely. I’d been bombarded with surreal images every day in the late sixties and early seventies. It was even on tv , I watched The Monkees’ and countless Fellini-esque French films on PBS with a bowl of Captain Crunch everyday. I began to believe…or know as the matter is, that understanding isn’t necessary for effect. Having to understand degrades experience. You can leave your decoder ring in your pocket.
J.M. Philip Guston called himself a night painter because he’d wake up the next
day and be surprised by what he’d painted the night before. I like that
idea of not being fully conscious of what you’re doing. How much of your
composition is automatic or improvised?
CERIO: I improvise 90% but the remaining 10% is composition, and that 10% is the spine and brain.
J.M. I would have thought most of it until I saw a sketch for a rabbit mobile
that suggested you might work with a predicted outcome. Is this rather the case?
CERIO: That sketch was for a mobile I knew I’d probably never get around to building. That’s why it’s far more realized than the thumbnail sketches that I actually work from which are usually composed of less than ten lines. Anyway, when I get around to that sculpture it’s needs will determine a hundred or so deviations from the sketch. I would never follow a sketch line for line. I don’t boss myself around. I don’t predict outcome. I only predict compostion, the rest is just frosting. If your composition is tight it doesn’t matter if your drawing thumbtacks, it’ll be appealing to great degree. Look at Franz Kline, it’s just black paint, right? It’s nonrepresentational and it still makes most realism look like little puddles of poopy.
J.M. You’ve mentioned to me an interest in Art Brut. What aspects of it apply to
your way of working?
CERIO: I give more attention to my hallucinations, daydreams, delusions and to anyone else’s art or music that hints at theirs. Art brut insinuates that everyone filters the world through their psyche, like staring through a transparency. That idea bashes the concept of mass marketing in the face. Sometimes I get sad wondering what I would draw like now, had I not studied at it for years. Skill doesn’t make the artist. It makes a better draftsman and craftsman. I prefer my next door neighbor to Rembrant. Henry Darger demonstrated American ingenuity in a room all by himself; while Norman Rockwell pimped himself off to grandmas.
J.M. Some of DuBuffet’s work with butterfly wings comes to mind when I look at
your images, particularly the complexity and obsessive patterning, secondary
images created by combining other images. However, he had the advantage of
using various materials, collage, pastes, mortars, etc. which could be
shifted around until they suggested something else. It would seem that
working with pen and ink, flat paint, or computer coloring these options are
out of the question. Is that true?
CERIO: I believe it’s just the opposite. I think it’s become easier to get those effects using new technology.
J.M. How much do your materials influence the way you work and the ideas you
CERIO: I arrived at my materials because of the ideas I’ve had. I got a “Jungle Book” Colorform for my birthday when I was 3…then my Mom gave me a viewmaster with a “Peanuts” reel. That got me thinking with my eyes. I came across that colorform in the Village a couple years ago…that’s when I realized the impact it had on me. Same palette I use, same color field logic and even similar line . The first drawings I remember doing were a series of giant witches walking through cities being attacked by U.F.O.s then I tried to mimic the line work from the mural in our shower. It was a water plant with shells and rocks.
J.M. You mentioned that you hope to communicate a feeling of joy. Is this still
CERIO: Yes. That’s all I care about really. Misery and discontentment are easy to come by. Happiness takes work. Nothing good comes easy. Joy can only be found through action. If you sit still and never seek, you starve and die. Stagnate and you create nothing. You have to move through as much space as possible and pick up molecules to help you along the way. Work sets you free. This universe makes it difficult to live in pure bliss, why?. Sadness is always present and happiness is always fleeting. Why isn’t the state of the universe a vast milkshake of smiling creatures and positive, immortal occurrences? That’s why I dedicate myself to it. I get up inside it sometimes. Every time it lets me stay a little longer. I’ll trap it one day and feed it mallow cups and gumballs, walk it around on a leash like in that Zen narrative painting of the water buffalo and the farmer boy .The first panels the buffalo does as it wants, completely oblivious to the boy. By the end, the buffalo: which is meant to represent the id, follows him like a dog. I think adults generally equate sadness, violence, irony and misery with maturity while they equate joy and bliss with immaturity. I’m not cool enough to be bemused I guess. I’m very excitable.
J.M. If you conveyed a different emotion would it be a failure?
CERIO: I’ve tried to communicate sadness but the pieces seem to be sarcastic and mocking which is nice. I’ve been working on a series of them on and off for the last few years.
J.M. To me, there is also a menacing quality about your pictures. They suggest a
mind out of control, or a hallucinatory state. It’s something that’s often
seen as recreation today (probably more so in the 60s and 70s) but can
easily become a terrifying situation.
CERIO: Menacing? Adults find my work menacing and children think it’s silly. It’s that phenomena I just mentioned. My smiling animals are menacing, but a Giger painting is “cool.”
As far as hallucinatory art goes, I’d look at nothing else. I’ll draw nothing else. I create my images because I wish they’d happen. I honestly have no idea why someone would draw a realist still life. I’ve experienced apples and a wood bowl before. The invention of the camera should have put an end to that sort of imagery.
Terrifying situations? If you hang out with misery, frowns and that boring anxiety in your head, hallucinogenics are going to bring that out and it’s going to make you stare it all in the eye. Your brain isn’t out to get you; it’s just inviting your friends to dinner.
J.M. You have an entire alphabet book about them, so do you predict your audience
will be using them?
CERIO: People have craved alternate states of consciousness since the beginning of time and have certainly developed the tools to achieve it: cigarettes and alcohol included.Aldous Huxley called it “artificial paradise.” My drug book is about all drugs, not just hallucinogens. Most people made the mistake of thinking those were my personal feelings on those drugs. One reviewer said I acted kindly towards my favorites. That’s silly! I was using the general public’s views and stereotypes about those substances and illustrating them. Now, speed for instance invokes no heartwarming or silly stories while marijuana has no dark stigmas attached so I could approach the two very differently. Another way I metered stigmas was considering which drugs people will admit to consuming. No one will pull out their works and shoot heroin in mixed company, or admit they did a line in the bathroom, so it’s safe to say the culture holds taboos about various substances.
J.M. Have you ever spoken to someone who’s looked at your work in a
hallucinatory state? What was their reaction?
CERIO: I’ve heard from people who’ve blown up various drawings of mine for their black light rooms or collected my black light posters and told me about how well they work on them under the influence of various substances. Someone recently approached me to print my work on blotter.
J.M. One of my strong memories of childhood was how much psychedelia entered
mainstream popular culture in shows for kids like Sesame Street and Alphabet
Soup. People were stretched like rubber bands and turned into clocks and
fountains or disappeared into thin air. The physical world was impermanent
to an exaggerated degree. Why do you think children’s entertainment and
drug culture have so much in common?
CERIO: Those were liberties that you couldn’t take with entertainment till the summer of love. 50’s culture would never allow that. They were selling coiffures and germ free well being. Aside from the beats the 50’s were about ‘how do we get there, where’s the map’ the 60’s were ‘let’s go!’ It was about the ride. I think what children’s entertainment has in common with drug culture is that children want their entertainment to be elevated from every day life. I think that the pivotal point of the cross pollination of the two was Syd and Marty Krofts shows,”Lidsville”, and “H.R. Puffinstuff”. They are not hiding the drug references there eh? Seuss was another cross pollinator albeit innocently and unintentionally. Now, Seuss…Shit, what a genius in every conceivable way.
J.M. Animation seems like such a perfect medium for synthesizing alternate states
of reality. It’s too bad it’s so often used to solidify just the obvious
one. Have you ever worked with animation?
CERIO: I have “Happy Birthday” cakes, presents, candles and other stuff on Nickelodeon Jr. every morning. The characters come out and sing happy birthday to whatever children may have their birthday that particular day. It’s been running for 6 or 7 years now. I’ve also done two pieces with The Residents. I created the shooting targets for “Dixie’s Kill a Commie Shooting Gallery” for the “Bad Day at the Midway” cd-rom Jim Ludtke did such a beautiful job animating and it doesn’t hurt having a Residents tune playing along with it either. My section was just re-released on their new “Icky Flix” DVD along with a film I did with them for prime time German television called “Disfigured Night.” John Payson directed that one. The Residents projected various images via computer to backdrops behind a live performance, Payson filmed it then edited in more animations. It’ll be out on DVD in early 2003 the last I heard.
J.M. Have you seen Bruce Bickford’s work?
CERIO: What kind of Zappa fan would I be if I didn’t witness the work of “The Amazing Mister Bickford?.” I can’t even imagine the time frame on his projects. They seem mostly improvised as well which makes them even more impressive. I love that you can see finger indentations moving all over the plasticine while the action moves. His interview in the “Baby Snakes” film is as trippy as his animation.
J.M. One thing that concerns me about making a living as an artist is the need to
present some sort of consistency. You’re free to interpret the world around
you as long as it’s done in the same style with the same attitude. Does
this seem contrived to you?
CERIO: Isn’t improvement more interesting than consistency? But I believe consistency is good for business. But look at Charles Schultz, he was consistent, same pen nib, same ink, same size paper, same table for half a century. Don’t get me wrong. I love ‘peanuts’ but that terrifies me. Of course he was a millionaire. They asked Captian Beefheart why he hadn’t gone mainstream and recorded a hit record yet he said ‘I’m either too smart or too dumb”. You have to pitch yourself like a snake oil salesman. I’m a gallery artist, illustrator, animator, children’s book artist, character designer and a dumb painter. It’s all one trade the way I see it.
J.M. We talked about Guston earlier who broke out of his recognized style because
he didn’t feel like he was being true to himself. He did this to great
critical disdain. Does “art as a business” improve or hinder the quality of work we see?
CERIO: Business is a necessary evil. You have to be an unlikely fusion of both to survive.
I think it lessens the quality of the work we see immensely. Non-creative three piece suit types always find their way into the process in almost any paying job or gallery situation. Then those holes near their chins open and “I don’t get it?” and “Will that go with tan couches?” and “Dare to be boring” comes out. Even Britney hears that shit on a daily basis I bet. My choice was to play the game full time but I have friends who work nine to fives and work on their art at night. I know a painter who won’t show, he works for himself.
J.M. Without getting too political, what are your feelings about state sponsored
art? Do grants allow for more uncompromising work?
Have you ever seen the work of the judges beforehand? It seems judging these grants is their only claim to fame. And who knows what they’ve been told is acceptable.
CERIO: I live in NY State so who knows what’s gonna happen since that “piss Christ’ dude pissed off Giuliani. Katharine Gates had an opening for our ABCof drugs book in NYC. The gallery wouldn’t allow the topless wine servers she requested because Giuliani was sending out undercover Nazi agents to the clubs and alternative galleries to fine them for vulgarity. He made that amazing city into a mall. I lived there for 10 years and swore I’d never leave, and then he came along.
J.M. Can you describe your mindset when you are drumming? Is it intuitive, or
CERIO: I won’t count, I feel my way through the time signature then I let the limbs move and watch it. When it’s going right it looks pretty, the same as drawing. It’s always better when there is an animal intelligence behind it. The human intelligence worries about it’s past and its future and rarely manages to deal with it’s present. It’s hard to get up inside of it sometimes but it’s a fun ride…like not being here anymore or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s foreign to me because I am here at those moments to a greater percentage than usual.
I imagine that my spine is the mind and my limbs are nerves twitching on current. The limbs have to trust the spine. If I think I’m doomed. That’s why I can’t play repetitive rock beats anymore.Improvisitation exercises the mind, dance and rock beats are a numbing heartbeat. I believe the idea of musical structure is over rated ,a pop tune divided into fours and eights makes it predictable and boring. The Beatles wrote nursery rhymes. Musicians counting and mimicking their own parts from recordings is the fall of modern music. When you get something more complex like Beefheart, the heart of those compositions lies in improvisation and extreme variation, it makes the mind work. Like Alfred Jarry said “nonsense makes the mind work” not to say that improv’ is nonsense, but it is straight out of the id, not some rocker folding in his thumbs and counting out verses while he daydreams about secondhand gas station work shirts.
J.M. Are there any musicians/composers that influence your artwork?
CERIO: I’m more inspired by music than art. I listen to music almost the entire time I’m awake.
Captain Beefheart, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, The Residents, John Cage, Eno, Zappa, Harry Partch, Soft Machine, Pharaoh Sanders, Syd Barrett.
J.M. Your images have a manic energy despite being quite refined. I’ve heard you
work quickly. With deadlines as they are, I’m sure you have to. But I
wonder how important speed is to the energy of your work?
CERIO: It’s important to me to get the idea down on paper. I’m usually doing thumbnail sketches for new pieces on the boarder of the piece I’m working on. When the ideas come…they come If I spent a week doing one piece I’d confuse sensations, I’d be working out too many ideas at once. I believe they would muddle.
I always carry a notebook and it’s strange but sometimes I won’t recognize my own ideas.
J.M. Can you talk about some other illustrators working now who helped you figure
out what you wanted to do?
CERIO: I don’t work like any of my favorite illustrators. Gary Panter or Ben Shahn for instance.You should see some of the amazing stuff Panter has in his studio, it would make Guston blush. Alexander Calder, Arp, Roger Duvoisin and Dr. Seuss have been big inspirations too .I think their influence is a bit more visible.
J.M. Can you describe the process by which you came to figure out the look of
CERIO: I wanted optimal pleasantry and no sharp edges. I recognized how America uses the packaging on anything sweet: cereal boxes, candy wrappers, ice cream etc. to express joy and I adopted the same intention.
J.M. How do you like teaching?
Cerio: I’m not full time and it still exhausts me. Six hours of classes is like a full week at the table. I get hung over from the talking and crits but it’s amazing to get all of that energy back.
J.M. I know you aren’t into comic books, but have you read Dan Clowes’ “Art
CERIO: In absolute honesty, I’ve read very few comics. One by Gary Panter, two or three by Mark Beyer, all of Rory Hayes, The Zaps and I just read Mike Kupperman’s book which is amazing.
J.M. He has a pretty negative take on his art school days. His feeling was that
the teachers were there to pick up a paycheck and not to benefit future
CERIO: There’s no big secret or special handshake. It’s not toilet cleaning 101 and they intentionally neglected to mention toilet brushes and cleanser. But I have heard of ceramics majors getting hired over working painters as painting professors at state schools only because they had a MFA. Maybe he got stuck with one of them.
J.M. Do you think its possible to teach
art or just techniques?
CERIO: Anyone can learn technique at home alone and they do. It’s muscle memory. I think classes are a good place to hear criticisms of those techniques. You can’t teach taste. You cant teach art which is to say but you can expose students to great art and hope they become inspired by the things that make it great by discussing the elements, history and inspiration behind it. Sometimes I wonder why I went to college and I realize I never would have done all, of that work on my own. I would have drank myself into a———-
J.M. What are some of the most important “lessons” that you try to drive home?
CERIO: Work and persistence. Smell out your likes and dislikes. Then work some more. Believe in hard work, not talent.
J.M. You spent several years in New York. Now that you live Upstate, can you say
how important that was to you, not only in the contacts you made, but in
your style and your message?
CERIO: I arrived in NYC in 1988, luckily as it turned out. Rents were low. It was necessary for me to be around musicians and artists at that age. I was 21 and had just graduated from Syracuse University which was 12 miles from the house I grew up in. I slept in my car for a couple of days but I found a place in Queens. I roamed around the East Village and China town for a couple of months then I got a drawing in a group show at Psychedelic Solution Gallery. I interviewed for a job there on my way out of the door while I was dropping my piece off. I ended up getting the job and stayed there for a couple of years. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I got to hang around with Rick Griffin, Crumb, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso…it was like a daydream. Remember, I was in a suburb of Syracuse two months before.
I remember one moment vividly, I stayed late one night because Jacaeber would let me use his paper cutter. I was trimming two hundred or so comic covers down for a ‘zine I was finishing. I remember whining to J and Randy Tuten who is an amazing psychedelic type and poster designer about my long hours. They both laughed and said “get used to it, you’re gonna have a million more all nighters if you wanna make a living at it. It’s not a nine to five job!” Shit, were they right…a sixty hour week is a vacation to me now.
My style was influenced by my need to increase my absorption rate for all of the music and imagery you’re fed in that city. I was at CB’s two nights a week, seeking out jazz shows, stealing cheese from openings in Soho, hitting every show on Greene street and then drawing until I fell asleep.
A message you asked? I see my work as a denial of chaos. Science becomes the fiction and fiction becomes the science.
J.M. How useful has it been to move?
CERIO: I don’t believe it matters where you work anymore, not with Fed Ex, fax machines, email and cheap phone service. When I graduated in eighty seven all we had were faxes and they were new to the market. Cities are dying and I hate to see it. I hate to see how New York City has become in the last five years at least. What passes as culture is entertainment. Dance, film, theatre, art and music were entertainment last I knew.
J.M. Where do you hope to go with your work?
CERIO: A comfy crater on the moon where they serve pulpy pink lemonade.
Interview with Steven Cerio
What is the idea behind Atlantic Drone?
Seems I’ve always wanted to do a prog-improv-ambient hybrid. I wanted to play with my friends in all different parts of the world and found a way. I knew that improvisation would need to be an important part of our process but we had to approach it in my own way, with written bookends and various approaches that remove the “wankiness” and din that is associated justly with free form. I decided to tape everything we did: catch their “births” on tape. Then I listen back and save the prettiest butterflies.
How did you find people to collaborate with that understood your intentions?
I have had a difficult time finding musicians in our area that know music theory beyond classic rock and pop traditionalism. They either become threatened by the challenge of my prescribed approach or they revert back to more traditional approaches. My solution was to call friends of mine from New York and Europe that I know from my touring days and have them contribute. With home studios being so common nowadays we can record with people all over the planet. Lore Barges contributed from Paris, she has an amazingly twee band called Dragibus. Michael “DustDevil” Duane who was the brain behind The DustDevils recorded his overdubs in England. Sal Canzonieri (The Thing and Electric Frankenstein), Dave Rick (Yo La Tengo, King Missile, Bongwater) and Jim Gibson from Toothfairy met me out in Jersey to lay their tracks down.
Working with seasoned experimentalists yields far better results and I don’t have to waste time babysitting. We pretend we’re performing songs we’ve already written and that seems to keep our mind on composition. We play our thoughts as best as we can and avoid any habitual approaches. I haven’t, won’t, will not and can’t play with stereotypical rock musicians anymore. I had enough of that in my Matador Records days. They can all keep their leather pants, scary skull tattoos and teen angst. Pretty is much harder to come by.
I just want to feel “fine”, “good” and “happy” occasionally and find a way to trap it for documentation and study. Who knows, maybe I can get it to multiply in the correct environment…… I want to make a benevolent music.
What kind of direction do you give your contributors when you create a song?
Some tracks require teaching the composition while I prefer to get most tracks on tape while the musician is hearing it for the first time… this insures freshness. They are there in the original improvisation or as close as can be arranged.
I think it’s very important and very thrilling to get the genesis of a track on tape. You’re taping its birth. We don’t play jazz but the same thoughts and freedoms are up inside of it all.
Is there any specific process to your writing that helps you get to where you want to be in the song?
Formula cannot get me there since I’ve never figured out “why” my stuff works…and I hope I never do. It isn’t a factual exercise. Our music has such a large amount of improvisation that our process demands those instinctual reactions for each piece to be successful. I’m very critical. I throw out almost ninety percent of everything I record. I can afford that luxury since I have my own studio. We have no expectations when we begin a session and I have none when I begin the mixing. Each has to be treated with its own set of rules that reveal themselves as the mixing and overdub process goes on.
What kind of music do you find the most stimulating or inspirational?
The music that influences me most are compositions and textures that confuse me with their logic. I rarely perceive those qualities in any traditional approaches. When musicians using traditional forms occasionally vary their approach from that learned norm it is usually met with hostility [even] when it is what the forms demand in order to move forward. If they don’t, the listener gets told the same thing over and over again until even small children get bored with the message. All the music I love can be traced back to Coltrane; he laid the tracks down and built the roads. I read some old reviews of “A Love Supreme” when it was released and was shocked! The traditionalists that have always believed that they own the intellectual right to jazz called his work “anti- jazz” and said he was killing it but as it turned out Coltrane, Ornette and Cecil were giving it a new life.
All of the traditional forms are symbiotic with the new interpretations. They define each other. After a form evolves out of its box and the top closes it gets a nice place in history which benefits both forms equally. Would anyone dare to compare their own work or anyone else’s to Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Led Zeppelin or the Beatles? Never, they exist in an envied, quaint mystical place in the past whether they are still working or deceased.
What sort of state of mind/feeling would you like your listeners to get from listening to this record? How does it make YOU feel?
I compare music to the temperament of a person’s speech. Atlantic Drone whispers in your ear but you hear only every other word. You catch a phrase or two, get a glimpse of the landscape, then build the story for yourself. I’d like them to go somewhere that they’ve never been and feel blissed out and energized and hypnotized by their own phenomena when it gets stirred up. Of course you can never account for where someone goes, like in any art form there is no exacting communication. Every note, image or sensation creates a different response in every person that experiences it. I can only hope that that I can cause a new connection in a brain somewhere: maybe two memories that have never met get stuck together with some synaptic super glue.
I can only know what “I” like and I can feel when something is “my” brand of psychedelic. I feel a bit confused, pleasantly lost, excited and very awake. This release makes me feel a sensation like moving forward on a bicycle without the bicycle. Everyone has their own triggers just like in sex. A series of fetishes: a series of notes, a guitar effect, a nice pattern, a certain word. You can’t account anyone else’s triggers but I know mine and I hope they are resonant to someone else, or I just might be drawing and recording for myself.
Sometimes I’m firing really well, not even an exhaled cloud of smoke goes up without me finding faces in it. Other days I’m in this irritating reality of reality television, banks, diseases, pick up trucks and beer drunks.
How does Atlantic Drone compare to past psychedelic bands?
I didn’t set out to comment or meditate on any past tradition but I like to think we may have been inspired by some of the same meditative spirits or psychedelic intentions as Pharoah Sanders, early Soft Machine, Can, Faust, or Captain Beefheart.
Atlantic Drone isn’t retro-fueled, I don’t do rock or blues beats and we are light years from being a jam band so “neo” psychedelic doesn’t work as a pigeonhole for us. “Post Psychedelic” is more appropriate since we create psychedelic music without commenting on the Sixties with our approach. What we do is between soundscape and song, between improvisation and structure…so what are we? I’m not sure myself and I’m proud of that. I’m not even sure where on the timeline we’re talking to you from. Do you? A friend of mine called it “improg” …I like that.
As a drummer and an artist, how important is rhythm in writing improvisational music?
I see my music as time decorated with occurrence. I see popular radio music as stories wallpapered with time. It’s very easy to disturb a person’s perception of music if they were raised on Pop. They were taught to think in what Captain Beefheart calls “the Momma heartbeat,” which is throbs of twos, fours, eights and twelves. If you give them seventeen beats per measure it will irritate them. Most people have become rhythmically challenged by any new approach after ingesting giant doses of dance and rock n roll. They demand the pleasure of easy tapping. If someone sat in a room without musical accompaniment and tapped an evenly spaced, even tempo, repetitive beat for the length of the average pop song you would think they had gone insane. If they perform that action along with the newest jingle by Britney Spears or any other marginally talented group of business-minded cut out dolls, how is that any less disturbing? Repetitive action as a substitute for ideas is moronic. Loops sound like the end of creation to me. I find them sad. They sound like the death of ideas. I grew up admiring musicianship, not studio trickery and machines.
What about harmony in a composition?
I like frequencies to compete with each other; it lessens tension though you would imagine it would do exactly the opposite. I like the focus to fade in and out. I like guitar sounds that dip in and out of the rhythm section. I wash the grit out of them and tweak them in the mixes until they fit the organism.
My approach to harmony is to use differing approaches layered on each other until a theme or passage appears from their placement. The listener can choose which line to follow. That makes the pieces dense enough for multiple listening while still retaining a bit of conventional melody.
What types of effects/sounds/instruments did you most enjoy using on this record and why?
I’m in love with using Jeff Hick’s Theremin set up. He uses multiple synths and Theremins simultaneously. Sometimes Bryan Kieser runs his horn through the set up. I’ve run my trap kit through it as well and he improvises the drum mix. Something about the way Jeff handles the rig gives the music a great sense of depth and a sonic Doppler Effect.
I generally dislike cymbal crashes. I prefer the sound of a well tuned drum. I tune mine to the specific piece we’re playing. The largest crash I use is a ten inch Wuhan since the large cymbals tend to hog frequencies. I’ve never heard a crash so beautiful it deserves to outrank a melody. They create a shimmering high pitch which isn’t really much of a miracle.
I pick instruments for texture. We used synth, drum kit, percussion, contrabass, violin, cello, guitar, bass, organ, xylophone, sitar, harmonica, Theremin, voice and six varieties of brass on this latest disc.
Is it a challenge to use so many different instruments without the mix turning into mud? The challenge with using all of these instruments is too keep some air and space in the performance. The key in the initial recording is to avoid habitual approaches by relaxing, reacting in the moment and avoiding wanky bursts of practiced virtuosity. I spend months on each tune getting all of the instruments to come to agreements with each other. I weave them in and out and under and over each other like a school of fish. Nothing is mapped out so each instrument has to earn its position organically. It’s Darwinism in action.
I noticed that vocal lyrics are minimal on these songs, what effect does that have on your songs?
Pop music uses musicians solely as soundtracks to sit the lyrics on. When a verse comes on in a radio tune you must have noticed that all musicians minimize the detail and volume of their approach. Elvis, Patsy Cline, and Brenda Lee could have played with almost anyone and the discs would have sold.
There has to be a struggle for importance, volume and clarity between every instrument and voice for any recording to be vital. Though I often write many pages of lyrics for most songs only a small fraction make it through the editing process. I use the lyrics to introduce you to the landscape that is the instrumental. The landscape comes first, then the signposts.
Being that you are also a visual artist as well as a musician, how does that affect the final outcome of your songs?
That comes out in the mixing of the songs to create their final shape. I approach the mixing board with the same intentions that I approach my drawing table with. They are both meant to create the same effect. I approach them both with the same exhaustive work ethic and intentions and each exhilarates me in the same way
Both my art and mixing evolve from a series of spontaneous ideas. I mold the sounds in the mixes to be creamy, light, and round. And like in my graphic work I took all of the sharp edges off of everything. As each line and note is layered with newly formed ideas, the composition becomes increasingly complex.
The original sounds that were recorded are not “guitar” or “drums” any longer when mixing, instead the sounds they made are molded into new shapes. One of my visual and aural triggers is the cross pollination of emotions and intents -which shouldn’t be confused with irony or juxtaposition. If I have laid down a sneaky sounding track I might ask a guitarist to play something that sounds drowsy or happy to them or I might ask Bryan Kieser to play his perception of Ravi Shankar’s sitar on his alto sax. What you can get is indefinable intentions or emotions that in themselves are very psychedelic to me. To find these moments, I’ve thrown away dozens of tracks. I demand that each track has to maintain its own organic life after it’s on tape. Sadly, many wind up in the recycle bin on my pc. If it doesn’t take me anywhere I move on. Luckily, we have a studio that Mike Paduana built for us so that we can do twenty takes of an idea or do extended improvisations and judge them at a later date. When you are performing and getting up inside of a piece, you may think its genius, only to find it was lacking the next day. It’s a luxury being able to step back and pick through hours of tracks; exhausting but luxurious. The editing process is very important in my music. Since I’m not worrying about studio bills I’ve been able to use that energy and time to listen very critically to each take.
You call Atlantic Drone a “psychedelic” band; do the effects of psychedelic drugs come to play in your music?
I think people have forgotten that Prog is a psychedelic music. You could never get an early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, King Crimson or Yes without some enlightened hallucinations. You can’t listen to their music without getting lit up. That is the exact definition of psychedelic music in my opinion.
I think there are three different approaches to the use of drugs for enhancing the creative process. The first group uses while recording and performing, believing their technique and ideas are enhanced by the substance. The second is the individual or group who has not had any psychedelic revelations or experiences but mimics the sounds, ideas and traditions of psychedelic musics they’ve been exposed to. The third group takes notes when under the influence, documenting the effects and their cravings so their creations will trigger similar reactions from their listeners. This is the approach that Atlantic Drone prescribes to.
Psychedelic drugs can be a learning tool. They can give you a shortcut to a fleeting well being, power or vision. Though they are beautiful illusions, making any aesthetic decisions under their influence has never seemed smart to me. I like to be here when I make decisions. Pot smokers seem to think they are at their best when stoned. They must think that the THC releases their genius from some mystical hippie gland at some undisclosed location on their body. I’ve never played with a musician who did their best work high.
If you made a visual representation of your entire record on CIRCADIA or of individual songs on the record, what would they be of?
The name “Atlantic Drone” come from a hallucination brought on by exhaustion that I had while living in Brooklyn. I had been up for a full two days trying to finish three separate projects. I was repackaging Renaldo and the Loaf’s “Arabic Yodeling” and the ‘Elbow is Taboo” for cd and a portrait of Sun Ra for the Village Voice. I remember those details because those originals are still blood stained from when I cut myself with an Exacto blade I was using and had to cab it to St. Vincent’s to get stitches. A few minutes before the cut I closed my eyes and imagined that my head became a bumble bee and it was flying down the East River and following it out to sea and then heading across the Atlantic. By the time I was half way across I realized that my new body was covered in sores and wrapped in bandages and there was nowhere to land. I still remember it in fine detail. I remember the smell of the air, my short fur and the realization that I didn’t have legs. Even if I did find a landing strip or flower I was gonna have trouble. Before this experience I had been deeply interested in bees but at that point I had re-imprinted on them like a baby gosling does to its new mother goose. My friend Cindy, who I’ve known since I was three, reminded me of our bee collecting as preschoolers which must have some part in it.
I have been working on adapting the stories hinted at on the disc for a comic for the last year. If I had the room I would have illustrated every track. Maybe CIRCADIA will let me do that for the next disc.
The lyrics in “over fed” are a play on the final lines of “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge where the author claims to have discovered the secrets of attaining immortality. My original unedited lyric was “for they have over fed on honeydew and sunk the milk of paradise.” I would represent this track with the last living man and woman posing as an Adam and Eve at the end of a reverse evolution of human life, which is a very comforting and perfect solution to all of this.
“my kingdom for a confection” is another chapter in my ongoing obsession with using candy as a symbol for joy. Despite how much I despise and hate symbolism in any form- don’t symbolize it, give it to us-, I can’t help myself in this case.
Not to be taken in sarcasm the lyrics imagine a world, a world without viciousness where happiness is constant and equally distributed. It questions, like most themes on the disc, why is pleasure so fleeting no matter what is done to preserve it? Worry and misery last a good long unwelcome time without any encouragement. I would represent this track with a drawing of the vivified sugar cube sitting safely and bone dry on a mountaintop with sunbeams shooting out of it
“brave commander Farla approaches the sun” was named after a dream I had where I was floating in space and Farla, my cat, came up to visit me in her rocket. I see her thru the window: I knew she had tea for me. I can see her mouth moving but I can’t hear a word thru the thick glass. I think she stopped by for tea on her way to the sun. The song is a soundtrack that plays on her way to the sun. You can hear recordings of her voice throughout the track and various other places on the album …I love being able to say ‘album’ again, its been a long time.
“paleface charms the sugarbowl” is the second track I’ve done about a green plastic tea cup I found in Arizona, miles from any roads. It was half buried in the dirt near an abandoned adobe hut. I’ve dated the cup to the early sixties. The lyrics are narrated by a woman watching a male character I imagine holding the dry cup wishing he had some sugar, tea and hot water. A photo of the cup would do it for me on this track.
“be it wonderful” is supposed to be a pretty summer day song….thick and flowery. I imagine a little girl sitting on a blanket on a well manicured backyard somewhere singing it. Laure Barges from Dragibus sent the vocal to me on cassette years ago. I have no ideas what the lyrics are about…cant understand French but I always think I hear her say ‘be it wonderful” at the end, which is nice to hear.
I used sections of my friend Tom Scharff’s tapes of his talks on meteors and meteorites for “comets and Clovis” I cherry picked the lines where science and fact faded into guessing and confusion about the subject…the frontier. When I hear this track I like to imagine a primitive Clovis Man laying on his back on a grassy field at night, resting after a long day of doing caveman stuff, when a comet shoots by. I still get excited when I notice one. What would an early version of man think of that?
“the sky behind her” is a song for Farla, my mom and sister who all passed away recently. I had my friend Jason read it. The lyrics are about a narrative I wrote while under the influence of some opiate-which I was using to self medicate the depression with. In the story I was walking with a green pig- a negative interpretation of those fictional sky gods that people believe are watching out for their best interests. I described how beautiful the three of them were to the pig but he wasn’t impressed…more concerned with impressing me with his power to dispense with life. I was far from impressed and quickly found myself kicking it to death-something I would never do to a pig.
On a more pleasant note: “only orange thru the eyelids (for Farla)” reminds me of sitting in the sun with your eyes closed and that beautiful color you can see if you face the sun directly. I have fond memories of sitting in the yard near the window to my studio while Farla watched me thru the screen. I would draw her as a Mayan Leopard goddess, resting on a windowsill with an overflowing bowl of Kookamunga cat treats next to her. No matter how many she eats, the bowl stays full. A cornucopia of catnip enriched snacks!!!
The images that were used for the album art are different variations of paradise that the vivified sugar cube offers Farla and the vicious universe hoping one of them will save it from melting into the hot tea.
Reposted this from Wow Cool’s site.
The newest issue of the excellent Signal to Noise Magazine (#58 – The journal of Improvised & Experimental Sound) features a great spread of several of Steven Cerio’s concert posters and a good sized interview with the man talking about his history, art and music. Interesting discussion of his method and changing style and an anecdote about meeting William Parker. Subscribers will already have their copies (at least I do) and it should be available in stores and online soon.