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A Conversation with Drummer Neal Morgan

nealinforest.photobyseanpecknoldhead-and-bottleThis Sunday June 9, we’re really looking forward to Neal Morgan‘s lecture and slideshow on the painter Philip Guston in Portland at the Stumptown Downtown Cafe at 6pm.

You’ve most likely seen Neal perform, behind the drums and on the road with Bill Callahan and Joanna Newsom. He writes and records an experimental solo project, too, rich with layered drums, backing vocals and earnest spoken word, and is working on a new record which will come out later this year.

Neal became “somewhat fanatical” about Philip Guston’s later work while working at SFMOMA in 2003. For the last ten years, his inspiration and fascination with Guston has deepened (the cover of his last record In the Yard is the artist’s painting “Evidence”) and he has engaged in a rigorous study of his work.

We talked with Neal about courageous artists, making art in wartime, and falling for Frank Ocean.

What is it about Philip Guston in particular that has inspired you to further your research and give lectures in honor of his 100th birthday?

Guston was as courageous an artist as they come. After ten years of tunnel vision related to him and his work, I still feel newly-inspired by his bravery. I think we all have something to learn in particular from his rejection of abstraction and return to figuration in the late 60s and from the otherworldly works that resulted. The best way that I can honor and thank Philip Guston is to help others to see and consider and understand his work. I gave a lecture spontaneously outside Tiga for his birthday last year and thought I’d up the ante a little bit for his centennial.

Tell me about your investigation and deep study into the artist’s work.

In 2003, while working at SFMOMA, I was able to spend a lot of time in Michael Auping’s Guston Retrospective show and became like a moth to a light bulb. I hadn’t understood the late work before that time. We had just invaded Iraq, we were deep into Bush’s first administration, and I was struggling with my wanting to be an artist, wanting to be a drummer in the middle of all this. I was out there taking photographs of fields and Bush was in office. Sure, be an artist, I guess that’s ok, but what was my responsibility? I had needed to see that late Guston work and to understand it and to understand where it came from. Where HE was coming from. In his fifties, then a master painter and wealthy and comfortable after a long stretch as a leading abstractionist alongside Pollock, Rothko, Kline and the rest of the so-called New York School, he re-joined the fight. Picasso said painting is an act of war. That is true. But some artists and some paintings are on the frontlines of battles in addition to being “at war” in a general man vs. society/technology/corporate America sense. Some paintings are doing the hand-to-hand combat. And the punches he threw in that late work were right on the money in so many ways. There were no sucker-punches. It’s beautiful, important, mysterious work.

Can you speak to the nature of a sort of “fanaticism,” as you call it, or obsession, in general?

I think we all get tunnel vision for certain art; maybe a writer you love and you have to read everything she wrote; that song that you have to play over and over again. For me, when I’m struck by a song, for example, and have to listen on repeat for an extended period of time, it’s because there is some mystery there that I am trying to absorb and understand. I want to have THAT special feeling of hearing THAT song NOW. There are things that I need to learn, or I simply just need to be in touch with THAT feeling, so I follow it until I’ve moved on to something else. I’ve worn out Frank Ocean over the past six months, for example, listening over and over, because I’m excited by it and I’m always in awe of how those lines work and how his vocal melodies work. How he delivers the opening line to “Super Rich Kids”: “Start my day up on the roof,” is really something extraordinary. The delivery and melody of the opening line to “Pilot Jones”: “You’re always smoking in the house – what if my mother comes over?”, and how it all falls over the beat – it’s out of this world. So I listen and listen. I can’t say exactly what I’ve learned from doing so, but I’ve been put in touch with feelings that are important for me to have right now.
1970 Bad Habits

How do you feel about devoting so much time and scholarly pursuit to one artist? Do you ever feel like you are missing out on something by not studying other painters or artists that might inspire you in a different way?

I can chew gum and walk at the same time; there are several artists I’ve been very focused on over the past ten years. But at the same time, I’m not someone who devours a wide range of other people’s work; particularly if they’re not also close friends. I am not much of a multi-tasker. I’m not someone who needs a lot of inputs – I’m not out getting all the new music and all the new books and going to see all the art shows. I do those things, but I pick and choose carefully. Life is too short to spend on art that doesn’t move you.

Now, if you don’t take chances and expose yourself to new work, you limit your potential to be inspired and moved and you can miss out. So there’s a balance there. The good news is that there is a lot of art that does move me and I’ll never in my life time be able to get to it all. Perhaps this is your fear. I don’t have that fear. I’ll get to what I get to. I’m not worried that I miss out on other art because of my focus on Philip Guston because the benefits are so great. Once I feel like I’m not learning anything anymore, or that I don’t want to look at those paintings, I’ll call it good. I don’t worry about things like that; I just go with the hot hand. I go with what’s working and see where I get to.I think that we gravitate to certain work and certain people depending on where we are in our lives; what we are trying to learn, what we need to learn, what we want to feel and be thinking about given all the variables of ourselves and our situations. The point is, I think, to follow the work that shakes you to your core and follow it until you don’t need to follow it anymore. That doesn’t mean you don’t approach other work or don’t allow other inputs in; it just means that you prioritize based on your intuition.

One might find getting to know the work of a particular artist will be a life-long pursuit; that the layers will continue to peel away over years and years as the attempt is made to understand and to feel inspired by what they’ve done. The excitement always remains. In other situations, it fades naturally. I don’t think I need much Van Halen in my life anymore. Maybe the occasional Fair Warning and Van Halen I, but not much more. I liked Jasper Johns when I was a teenager, but I can’t stand to see any of it now. I listened to Elvis Costello years ago and now I want to poke my eyes out if I hear it. We change.

How has your work as a touring musician affected or influenced your study or relationship with Guston’s work?

Tours around the world over the past several years have become like Easter-egg hunts to find late Guston paintings; sometimes I’ll call ahead to museums to make sure particular late Gustons will be on view. Touring has allowed me to see paintings I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

How do you relate to his work personally? How has his work and writing influenced your own work?

The late work feels so important to me. There’s too much to try to write here, but just choosing one example, I find those “hood” canvasses which we’ll go over in depth during the lectures, to be profoundly important. I just always want to look at them – they are brilliantly painted and composed and they have so much to say, so much to tell the viewer. My spoken drum and voice record that will come out late this year is largely a response to those canvasses. I responded to a painting from 1970 on my second drum and voice record and his daughter was kind enough to let me use an image of that painting on the record cover. In terms of influence, we hope that some osmosis happens, but who knows.

How do you think creativity and the creative process at the time Guston lived and worked relates to the present?

Risk-taking, courageous artists are worth a damn. Others are not. Nothing changes.

What’s up next for you?

Two Guston lectures in California later this month, playing a MusicFestNW show September 6, and my spoken drum and voice record will come out later this year. Thanks, Stumptown!