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Dinos Chapman: Electroshock Therapy

After 22 years as one-half of the notorious art duo, the Chapman brother is now releasing his debut album. Here he tells us why this isn’t sound art, but music proper.

Taken from the February Issue of Dazed & Confused:

The instruction was simple: go and find the man behind sculptures of Hitler, conjoined twins and mutilated corpses. The shadowy figure they call Dinos Chapman. He’s undertaken a mysterious new music project called Luftbobler, they said, and is residing in a remote location, somewhere on England’s south coast. Martin Sheen travelling the Nang river by boat this isn’t, more a 10am Southeastern train service from London Victoria to Kent. But what lurks at the end of that journey is a man whose work with brother Jake has received innumerable cries of, “The horror! The horror!”

Yet in person Chapman is surprisingly affable. He is smiling as he pulls up to the station in his grey Land Rover wearing a fake-fur bunny costume for which he proffers no explanation, but all is soon explained by the press shoot evidently underway outside the converted water container he calls home (his second, in addition to his place in Spitalfields). Stepping out of the car, Chapman opens a door that weighs two tons and would break your fingers if they got caught, he says, before leading the way down long halls lined with his own work and others’, stopping at a sizeable sculpture in the main hall, a Gary Hume.

“I swapped that and had it installed here but kept Gary waiting on our sculpture for four years. Jake eventually ruined it by telling him it had been ready the whole time.”

He trails off as he begins tapping his iPhone furiously, explaining that Jake has sent him a link to a website that has permanently locked his internet browser. “Do you know how to get out of it? He’s a real shit, my brother, sometimes.”

After more failed attempts to fix the device, Chapman opens the door to a kitchen presided over by two excitable boxer dogs, Woody and Snoopy (the latter only has one eye thanks to a run-in with a thorn bush). He prepares coffee while waiting to continue the shoot to promote Luftbobler, an album of cacophonous, cinematic electronica inspired by the likes of Squarepusher and Stockhausen.

It’s a remarkably listenable offering from a man whose visual art has always challenged audiences. “Everybody’s going to expect noise,” he says, pulling up two chairs at a kitchen table with a view over the Kent countryside. On it stand two church candles, embellished with felt-tip drawings of cats exclaiming “miaow” from their vaginas and skeletons wielding scythes and declaring to small dogs, “For youz the war iz over.”

“People are going to make comparisons with the art,” he continues. “Everyone’s going to expect thrash metal or some earbending dissonance from one of the Chapman brothers, but that’s too easy. That’s what I’d imagine artists would make. For me, it was always important to make music. I don’t want to punish people, y’know, ‘Ooh look, isn’t this irritating?’ I don’t want any special dispensation just because I’m an artist.”

The 13-track record, released by The Vinyl Factory, has the perturbing Chapman aesthetic running through droning bass-lines and set off against unexpected, melodic high notes. Opener “So It Goes” and the title track are housey throwbacks spliced with explosive sounds of ammunition, while “Reaktorsnuhsnuh” has a disconcertingly saccharine feel. “Smeyes” – a Tyra Banks reference, yes – demonstrates some pared-down minimalism, while closer “Alltid” evokes a landscape of epic proportions. “That track makes me laugh,” he says. “It’s like a couple of tired old cowboys creeping across a desert.”

Chapman’s music resembles sculpture. Taking “bits” built from sounds constructed on his preferred software, Ableton Live, he pieces tracks together during late-night stints in the studio in Kent and in the basement of his London home. “The thing I’m most interested in is evoking a sense of place. An atmosphere. The bass is like rolling thunder and then there’s these funny little things in the foreground doing whatever it is they do. The one-fingered piano bits I envision as some kind of demented child stabbing the keys in a horror film.”

Although the horror aesthetic is present, Luftbobler is still, as its creator says, music in the truest sense. While its inception might be unorthodox, the result has appeal far beyond the art world.

“I had 15 hours of stuff. And when The Vinyl Factory first approached me I was initially thinking about putting the whole lot on vinyl and saying, ‘I’m not going to do any editing to this.’ Of course, at this point I still thought it was all an elaborate joke. But when I realised that it was being taken seriously I decided to go back and rework a lot of it. It was a really slow and quite painful process getting it all down to 13 tracks.”

And the title? You might assume it’s the name of a German aircraft, a nod to the brutalist aesthetic of 80s synth music, but you’d be wrong.

“We went to Norway last February and I bought the equivalent of an Aero. It was called ‘Luftbobler’ and I thought it was such a funny word. It’s very evocative but you can’t imagine what it is. I mean, people think it’s German or Danish. I just liked it because it sounded ethereal.”

With that, Chapman is summoned outside to wrap the shoot. The fire alarm sounds on account of the smoke machine installed in the hallway and Chapman turns as he walks back down the corridor. “I should probably sample that,” he says, looking up pensively.

A few seconds later he is outside. “Scowl!” the photographer shouts by way of direction. “Imagine you’ve just killed someone.” Chapman smiles. It is not the reaction the photographer had hoped for and Chapman apologises, laughing.

“Sorry,” he says, fixing his smirk and shooting the team a sardonic glance. “I’m just imagining who that would be.”

After they finish he rids himself of the all-in-one faux-fur and returns to the Land Rover for a short drive to the local pub, where the landlady greets him and leads the way to a fairy-light bedecked table. It is an unlikely setting to continue a conversation about an album defined by its spooky, horror-drenched sound.

“I’m always surprised when I think of how long I’ve been making music, but it’s always been in private. I never imagined anyone else hearing it.”

This has given Chapman – a man who describes himself as painfully shy but hiding behind the guise of a rabid show-off – the freedom to create an album that is entirely his. “There are so many people out there that hate the art with a vengeance, so I’m used to it. But I care about what people think of the music because it’s new and delicate.

“I like sitting in a basement or in my studio here and just fiddling with things. It’s like trying to bang square pegs though round holes. You can do it if you hit it really, really hard. So I refuse to learn to use things properly. I can literally spend hours trying to find out why there’s no sound coming out of the speakers before I look at the back and realise it’s not plugged in. I’m that kind of...” He shakes his head. “I just have no interest in learning to use things properly. That idea of, ‘Don’t do this’ – fuck it, I’m doing it. That’s what I do and that’s what Jake and I do and it works.

“I can’t remember how I made any of the sounds on that album. On one of the tracks there is something that sounds like a German voice, but it’s not. It’s not even a voice. All I know is there’s a beat repeat that’s done something. But I like that. I like to run fast in a direction and not know how to get back.”

You would expect the caustic Chapman wit to struggle to find its voice in the much more sincere medium of music. Yet it is still there; something Chapman attributes to his approach when making it.

“It’s just about the mentality in which you create something. The playfulness is in bringing together extremes and seeing what happens; horror and humour, horror and innocence. Like getting the opposite poles of a magnet and pushing them together really hard. Interesting things happen. It’s a bit like when we made a sculpture of Hitler for a golf course. You hit the ball where his balls should be and his arm goes up. It’s funny and it’s mocking and yet the Jewish Leadership Council took great offence, because they said a sculpture of Hitler was offensive. But we were taking the piss. They should have been applauding us.

“The result of that was somehow getting the Nazis and the Jewish Council to agree that they hated this sculpture and so we were like, ‘Well, that worked!’”

So is it this taste for collision that has informed the Chapmans’ work and Luftbobler, as opposed to a love of horror itself?

“I do have a soft spot for horror,” Chapman admits, but he only elaborates when far away from the cozy confines of the pub, back in the Land Rover on our return drive to London.

“One of my favourite horror films is Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), directed by Walerian Borowczyk, but it’s disappeared. I’m trying to get the Barbican to track it down and show it. I first saw it at the Scala in King’s Cross, when they used to do all-nighters. I can like a film for a three-second bit in the middle. Literally every week I buy ten DVDs and watch them in succession or just listen to them while I’m drawing. At the moment it’s zombie DVDs.

“I have imagined some of the tracks as soundtracks to situations, not necessarily films. One of the tracks reminds me of Apocalypse Now, and when my brother heard it he asked, ‘Is that from Blade Runner?’”

So Jake has heard the record, and presumably likes it?

“Yeah, well, he says he likes it. And he’d tell me if he didn’t. He says he listens to it in his car. Jake’s always played music. You couldn’t get any sense out of him as a teenager because he was always practicing guitar.”

The brothers are working towards an exhibition in the Ukraine but have a loose plan to collaborate on a music project when it’s wrapped. “My only stipulation is that Jake doesn’t get to stand in front playing guitar and pretend that he’s the boss. I’m not standing in the back. He’s going to sit on a stool like Val Doonican and he’s going to have to wear a long wig to make him look crap.”

He admits that he and Jake have yet to fix a date for the project. Chapman’s reluctance to plan too far ahead is palpable, and reflects a much more fundamental belief that underpins much of his work: the importance of embracing the present. For him the future is nonexistent and the past exists purely as hearsay. “I mean, I love Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings,” he admits, “but I want to draw all over them. I’d love to know what it was like being a medieval man, but it’s never going to happen so it’s a waste of time.”

Cue outcry at the brothers’ embellished Goyas and their improvements to watercolours by a young Adolf Hitler. “That’s only important as a symbol.” Chapman explains, eyes looking forward along the dark road, the sight of London a cluster of lights peeping over the horizon. “Jake got on more personal terms with Hitler than I think he ever wanted to. When he was painting on top of one of his watercolours, he was licking his paintbrush and halfway through realised that Hitler had probably done the same.”

The road splits and Chapman leans forward to consider which lane to take. “Where was I?” He asks, and after some quiet thought, remembers. “That’s right,” he says, “swapping spit with Hitler.”

And had this affected his brother irrevocably? “Oh, undoubtedly,” he replies, smiling.

Luftbobler is released on February 25 via The Vinyl Factory