Chris Cunningham, Condensed

Posted August 11, 2009 in Clubbing Features

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There are certain events boys my age will always remember, stepping-stones that paved the yellow brick road to manhood. You remember where you were when Ireland got knocked out of the World Cup in Italia 90 (the first time I saw a grown man, nay a group of grown men, cry). You remember where you were when your one Diana died (in bed and distressed at being woken up). And you remember where you were when you first saw the video for Come To Daddy, Chris Cunningham’s era-defining video for a, let’s be honest here, fairly bog standard dance track (at least by Richard D James’s standards).

It was late night MTV, I was 14 cruising for porn when suddenly my corneas were taken on a visual trip that succeeded in doing what ‘c*****g daughters’, droogs, and several dodgy Wes Craven-helmed horrors had failed: it scared the shit out of me. From the sinister council block location (which rocked my middle class mindset to the core) to the multitude of mini D Jameses, this weird and wonderful creation not only turned me onto the world of the video director but it opened me up to a whole host of musical genres that were as alien to my Brett Anderson-worshiping ears as the cretin who roars at the granny towards the video’s close.

Like a dog cocking its leg, Cunningham’s visual flair seeps through each creation and his contribution is more important than that of the original artist when it comes to securing each track’s lineage. From the kinky robotics of Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love to the prepubescent psychopath in Squarepusher’s Come On My Selector, the hip-hop-aping Windowlicker to Samantha Morton’s exploding tentacles in The Horrors Sheena is A Parasite, Chris Cunningham was as important to the continued success of MTV in the nineties as the recently departed Jacko was in the eighties.

Ahead of his live performance at the forthcoming Electric Picnic Chris spoke to Totally Dublin about his mini-hiatus, his recent return and everything before and after.

What music videos inspired you before you got started in the business?

I’m not sure really. I didn’t get into music videos because I was interested in music videos, it was more that I started getting preoccupied with exploring music and film making. It was just the best way getting started as a filmmaker.

You seem to cringe at a lot of your earlier work. What did you learn from making the videos you consider to be – and I quote from your Pitchfork interview of 2005 – “absolutely shit”?

Well, I envy filmmakers who go to university and play around with a camera and make mistakes and discover where their strengths and weaknesses are in a less public way. I literally went from sculpting and engineering for Stanley Kubrick to directing music videos with absolutely no idea how to do it. I took on anything at first just to learn, and so I ended up learning my chops in front of everyone and, especially now with Youtube, you can’t run away from them. When I did the DVD collection with Spike [Jonze] and Michel [Gondry] I only put on there what I felt okay about. The rest are just cringe-making ‘college’ experiments.

Which one, if you could, would you have permenently banished from your collection?


Is it true you made Brian Molko cry when you were shooting the video for 36 Degrees?

I don’t actually remember anymore… if he was crying it was probably because he was in a pool of ice cold water, outside, in January… all day.

You’ve worked with some strong, aesthetically-obsessed females like Madonna, Bjork and Grace Jones. Did you find the process of working with them much different from working with say Aphex Twin or Squarepusher?

It’s very hard to say, all of the above are very complicated and unique people, so each case was completely different. They all cared about what was being done, but expressed it in different ways. I’d say that the majority of them just let me get on with it. Working with Grace Jones it’s very hard to put her past work out of your mind because it’s such strong iconography, therefore it was a little bit more intimidating than some of the others.

In that same Pitchfork interview you said you would like to direct a straight down the line action flick someday. Have you ever seen Strange Days? It’s the type of movie I think you would have had an incredible bent on.

I have seen it, but I was thinking more along the lines of Jack Sholder’s The Hidden or the original The Hitcher.

Was your hiatus a way of making people want you more, to take time to reflect on what you had done and really appreciate, or was it just that you were knackered and wanted to do something else?

My hiatus wasn’t entirely my choice. It’s quite hard to explain, but I’ll give it a go… I had very specific ideas about how I wanted to move on from music videos and I tried to pursue these ideas with Aphex and Squarepusher and other musicians, but I soon realised after spending four years on a short film and not releasing it that it was impossible to get other musicians to make music that would fit my ideas exactly. They have their path and I have mine.

Up until then, my video work was being financed by the record companies and artists and as soon as I wanted to take it to the next level… who was going to pay for it? Rubber Johnny [the six minute short video made by Cunningham using Aphex Twin music] happened because me and my friends worked for free at weekends for two years, and so you can see that to do what I do is actually very hard because it doesn’t fit anywhere. If I want to mess with the format, it’s not a music video anymore and it’s not video art or even a short film. No one wants to finance my experimental cartoon video show, they want me to make a video for one of their artists or direct a commercial, so I had to start making my own music and very slowly I have been making these new video pieces which are designed to be seen in a show on a big screen. The show that I have at the moment is a transitional piece, more of a video DJ set of remixed old work and unreleased work whilst I struggle to finish all the new pieces. I can’t wait to put brand new work out, but it takes time when you do virtually everything yourself. The brand new work is waiting in the wings and I’ll start putting it out in the New Year. It’s been slow, but I am finally getting to where I want to be.

Could you tell me a little about your career as a music producer. You worked with The Horrors on Primary Colours who also lured you out of retirement to work on the video for Sheena is a Parasite. What about them attracts you?

Working with the Horrors coincided with what I was working on in my studio at the time. I was getting interested in guitars and experimenting with sounds from guitars for my own music and I heard that track, and I just got overexcited because it had ideas in it that were close to what was in my mind at the time. It only takes one sound in a piece of music to open up a whole world of images for me and they were the first band in ages where I heard some sound design in the songs. When I met them it was really amazing how similar our outlook on music was. They played me Joe Meek stuff I hadn’t heard and I played them music concrete stuff they hadn’t. Although I didn’t want to make videos for other artists anymore, I just felt too much of a connection with them. It’s funny to see people dismiss them as being not ‘for real’ when the truth is the opposite. They are proper music lovers and sound fetishists in the same way that Squarepusher or Aphex is.

What was it like, to be so established in one field to step back and begin totally anew in another one?

It’s no different from when I started making music videos, having been an established film technician one minute and then start directing the next. My past effects work became an integral part of my film making style and so this next step is the same thing, mutating into a film maker/musician.

So what can Irish audiences expect from your Electric Picnic show?

A kind of ‘stage 1 video DJ set’. It is new mixes of my past video work with unreleased work in amongst it. It’s a taster of what the new stuff will be like…. providing my equipment actually works and the sound will go up to 11.



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