“The Sheer Need to Express”: Steve Gullick
"We went to Mount Etna whilst it was erupting."
As one of the most distinctive and highly acclaimed music photographers in the industry, Steve Gullick has produced unique, intense and often bleak imagery of legendary musicians, including Nirvana, Nick Cave and Alison Moyet, as well as utilising his lens to create desolate landscapes and hazy portraiture.
However, Steve is also a musician himself, and the creativity expressed in his visual art is lucidly re-expressed in his sonic work. His most recent project, the three-piece Tenebrous Liar, release their ‘Alienation’ EP on 9 February – Jack Rayner caught up with Steve to talk experimental industrial music, lava flows and the creative process.
Hi Steve. Your photography career came first, but have you always been a musician?
No. No, I came to it quite late. I’m principally a photographer, but I only photograph musicians. I’ve always loved music and I’ve always loved photography, so it was very satisfying to combine those two things to make the ‘dream job’. To me, the two are interwoven, but I’ve always articulated visually.
When I was younger – apart from having no musical ability – I didn’t have anything to say, because I was fairly content and extremely busy. Music photography kept me excited all the time, so I certainly would never have had the time to create a band, because that’s a very time-consuming thing. If you consider all the aspects of being a musician, you have to write, rehearse, find people to play with... One of the things that finally intrigued me enough to start making music was that in 1983, there was a TV programme called The Tube, and they showed a feature on experimental industrial music. What I particularly remember from it is a band called SPK; I was so intrigued by the music these people were making in a very non-traditional way. I realised that if I wanted to make music at some point, there was a way into it that didn’t need you to be proficient on any traditional instrument. At the time I actually did create a small musical project, but it was just a bit of fun.
I didn’t come back to making music until the late nineties, when my wife bought me a bass guitar and I bought a four-track recorder to lay down some material. A bit later James Johnston, who is the frontman of Gallon Drunk and someone I’ve always been friends with, offered to make some music with me, and around 2003 I got back to James and we ended up starting a band, which was called ‘...Bender’. After ...Bender fizzled out, I started Tenebrous Liar.
So what changed for you to come up with a more coherent strategy, music-wise?
In terms of cohesion, it’s purely down to meeting the right people who enjoy my music and know how to get it to reach the right people. From my perspective I’m perfectly happy to go along with that marketing side, but it’s certainly not something that drives me.
When we’re talking about music, as compared to visual art, how does your creative process change? How do you approach music differently?
Both are very organic, but my focus shifts between the two – I can’t flit between the two in a day, for example. I’m doing one thing or the other, and totally immersed in that. Having said that, they do come together when I’m making artwork for records, for example. The music inspires me to take certain types of photographs, which in turn piques my interest in, for example, landscape photography.
With your photography work in the past you’ve shot some of the biggest names in music. Who was the greatest pleasure to work with?
It’s a difficult question to answer from a distance, if you know what I mean. Things become culturally important retrospectively – Nirvana, for example. I could easily say that was the most exciting thing I ever did, and that scene of music was absolutely fantastic, but other bands that were around at the time were equally exciting to me. For example, I spent a lot of time with The Jesus Lizard, and maybe to answer your question, perhaps they were the greatest pleasure to work with. Or, perhaps Jason Pierce from Spiritualized.
What is it that made those shoots so special?
It’s the experiences shared during the photo sessions. With Jason, for example, we went to Mount Etna whilst it was erupting.
Yeah! We took photographs near the lava flow – that was an incredible experience, and I probably wouldn’t have done it with anyone other than Jason.
For the future, what’s your ambition for Tenebrous Liar?
Just to make good music. In terms of playing shows, we’re slightly hindered at the moment due to a loss in a member’s family, so that’s affected our ability to play live. In the past, the band has had a lot of lineup changes, but at this point I don’t feel that it should progress beyond the current setup, which is based in Coventry. We may add musicians here and there, but our three-piece nucleus isn’t going to change.
You create all the visual elements that accompany the Tenebrous Liar release. How important is it to you that, for a personal project of your own, the imagery accurately reflects the actual sound of the music?
It’s incredibly important to me. With the visuals that are associated with the music, I see both as a single piece of work, and the combination of both is the height of how expressive I can be. In a way it seems like my most personal work, and whether it reaches an audience or not, that’s not what drives it. It’s the sheer need to express. I’m able to articulate musically in a way now that I couldn’t have ten years ago. It’s something I love to do.
The ‘Alienation’ EP by Tenebrous Liar is out 9 February.
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