“The infinite is great” — Interview with Sue Tompkins
What follows is an interview with Sue Tompkins, artist and former member of seminal Glasgow post-punk outfit Life Without Buildings. It was recorded in London in 2015, hours before Sue’s live performance “Move Oil. Say Fanku” in Dalston.
What follows is an interview with Sue Tompkins, artist and former member of seminal Glasgow post-punk outfit Life Without Buildings. It was recorded in London in 2015, hours before Sue’s live performance Move Oil. Say Fanku at Young Team HQ in Dalston. It focuses both on Tompkins’ experience with the band, and more broadly on language, writing, music, and performing.
Life Without Buildings’ only studio album, Any Other City, turns 20 today, February 26, 2021.
The interview was carried out by Marcello Enea Newman and Clarissa Pelino. Marcello is an artist and musician based in Turin. He has played with acts such as Marcello e il mio amico Tommaso, The Jacqueries and Calcutta and founded Orchestra Futuro with Federico Antonini in 2018. Clarissa is based in Paris and works closely with artists on urban rehabilitation projects.
Do you miss being in a band at all?
I think I miss music. When we stopped being a band, looking back on it, I think I stopped for really personal reasons. It was getting too band-y. I’d never done it before and it was just getting too much like there were tours to do and t-shirts and badges and stuff. Now I actually think I would go with that a bit more, cause these things become a part of what you do, but it was all quite new and it was a bit scary, that side of it. I really enjoyed the whole process through, pretty much everything: rehearsing, writing, being. We were an odd mix of people but we actually got on really well as a group. It was nice to spend time together. I really like that feeling of being part of something, yeah, singing on top of a guitar and a bass and drums. We were really basic! We never had a keyboard or anything like that, really basic, but I liked that layering. I think when I listen to music, really listening to music, I find myself taking it to bits, in a good way, like “oh…that bass, wow, that’s really…” So I think I think in parts. I’m working alone now but I still think about parts and how they join up and to me a band is parts that sound really good together…hopefully! (laughs)
How did it feel to be the only girl in the band, compared to how you might be perceived as a female artist?
I think that I probably left the band as a pre-empting move: I got out of it before it freaked me out. I didn’t really think about it while I was doing it, I didn’t really go “Ok, right, what should I wear? should I have my hair cut?”. I wasn’t thinking about it. I think if we’d continued as a band, for good or for bad, I would have had to acknowledge that at some point and become more like “Hey, I’m the woman in the band aren’t I great!”
Did you sense that there was a pressure to be more like “the girl in the band”?
I don’t think I ever felt it but looking back on it I think I was getting out before I even felt it, which is really odd. I think being a woman artist is way easier than being a woman in a band. I know that’s not a particularly good thing to say but I think you just do what you do. It used to make me laugh cause in the band, when we did gigs Robert and Chris were like “Hey, I wrote this when I was on the toilet”, and I was supposed to introduce songs in a similar way, but I just didn’t really say anything! I remember a few times I said to Robert “Why do I always have to say that?” “Why can’t Will on the drums go “here’s the next song”?”. And they were like, “No you’re saying it” (laughs) and I used to go “Why can’t you say it?” cause I’d been doing so much singing and talking so I’d think “why can’t I be quiet?”, you know? Going back to that sort of front-woman thing, I guess you’re meant to be the spokesperson or sort of the conduit for everything and I don’t think I was ready for that.
Can you tell us about your writing ?
I think for me writing is the first point. You know, after thinking, or with thinking. Writing is such a part of what I do. I write things down, you know. I pen and pencil and write something. When I first write, it’s in any sort of pen on any bit of paper. But I’ve thought about it in my head first. I don’t tend to write as I’m thinking. I think and then refine it in my head. Once it’s refined, then I’ll write it down.
Then I type it with a typewriter, and lots of the time I type it up again in the way it was written. Then when I go through it and edit it again, I might cross something out but it’s still there, so I can see it. I think I find that quite reassuring when I’m performing.
Cause on certain pages there’s the option. I’ve decided that some part doesn’t fit but it’s still there, so I can use it if I want to. There’s still quite a lot of freedom, a huge amount of freedom, but I find it very reassuring that it’s all there. It’s written up in the form that I thought it in.
How long does it take you to prepare a performance ?
I’ve been working on tonight’s performance for a couple of months, but the writing period is longer. The last performance I wrote was about this time last year. Generally for some months I write little notes and put them aside, without re-reading them. There comes a point where that writing starts to build up. Even physically, you know, there’ll be sheets of paper. At that point I’ll think, “well there’s probably something there”. Usually it doesn’t take longer than six months. I don’t leave it for years and then go “oh wow, that’s quite interesting”. I need a sort of familiarity with it.
We know you spend a lot of time reorganizing your material, but what comes across in the end sounds and feels so natural. How does it all come together?
I think it’s because a lot of the writing is related to the visual, to seeing or experiencing things. Even other people’s experience, just everyday stuff. But I think that sort of familiarity is really important to me about how the final thing is.
I don’t rehearse before a performance. But when I look at the page, even if I’ve edited loads of stuff out, if I’ve kept it in it’s usually ‘cause I understand the page. Even if it was just “a cup of tea”, you know, I can look at the page and think it has either a visual image, or a trigger, or I can remember who said it, or think about the situation…
So I think it’s really important, if I were to analyze it, that I connect to it, and then therefore when I say it I think I’m trying to connect you to it too.
If feels like you are trying to make language do something that it normally doesn’t do. What is this thing that normal language can’t do?
I think there’s something in trying to see everything fresh. I’ve always thought of a thing like repetition being really interesting, rather than redundant, or even if it gets really redundant, that can be interesting in itself. You know? We think we know some words, that they are universal. Like “England”. To actually stand in front of people and just say the word “England”, I just feel like…”Oh God, everything’s massive!”
I think I’m quite overwhelmed by that sort of expanse of language.
How do you decide that you’ll repeat a particular word many times? Do you like the sound of it? Does it puzzle you?
I think it’s both. For instance in this performance I say “pre-internet” eight times. To think “pre-internet”…I find that huge! I don’t know if I thought it, if I read it somewhere or if I copied it from someone, but I like the way it sounds…like, oh my god! Pre-internet! Can you imagine? I tend to over-expand the things that strike me as interesting. Or sometimes it’s over-said to actually change it into a different word. If you say “cat” long enough then it starts to become nearly “dog”.
Do you ever watch footage of yourself performing?
I think I may have watched a few videos for about five, ten minutes, but I don’t look back at them and go “Oh God, yeah, I should have left that bit out” or “That’s ten minutes too long”. I think I would probably freak myself out if I studied the way I move about and stuff. I think I would probably stop, or completely slow down and take myself out of the equation, and make sound pieces where I’m not there. Sometimes I make specific gestures during a performance, and repeat them the next time I perform, but it’s not a conscious thing. It usually just happens, and the next time I perform it somehow it feels really natural to do the same thing again. It’s probably a body memory thing.
When did you start using your voice in your art?
I studied painting at Glasgow art school. At that point I don’t think I would call myself a writer or an artist. I didn’t quite know what to call myself. And I remember a point where I didn’t know what to paint. So I started leaving the studio and going to the library with a little Dictaphone. I’d pick off the shelves all the books that I wanted to look at. It was never just one book, it was always like “I’ll have a look at Andy Warhol, I’ll have a look at Caravaggio, I’ll have a look at Frieze…”.
I would go into a room with this pile of books and record myself looking at them. Not commentary, just things that I really liked. I might just say “Andy’s face” and then pause it. And then I might go “my face”. Just really instantaneous thoughts, letting myself say the first thing that came to my head. So that was probably the first time I did something that wasn’t a painting, and started to use my voice.
Speaking freely and then reflecting on it sounds a lot like therapy. Would you say it makes you feel better?
Usually at the time of doing a performance I do feel good about it. A couple of days later I sometimes feel like I’ve poured out something, and sometimes that feels really good, but other times it can feel a bit weird, like “Oh…What did I do!?”. But I don’t know if that’s just about performing.
What is the same for you when you were in Life Without Buildings?
It feels very different I think… I felt surrounded by them, in a good way. Probably quite protected. And when I’m doing it by myself I often think of rhythms, or rhythms of language, or sentences, or actual songs that are made up of little melodies, or just musical melodies. But yeah, music is still really in it. I put it in it, I want it in it, whether it’s just suggestions of music or alluding to music or actually singing bits that are music, songs, people’s songs… I like putting that in.
This freedom which we were talking about creates a sense of possibility and hope which is contagious. Do you intend for your art to be positive?
I tend to write about stuff that I really like. Even if it’s a downer I can write about it, but it has to be something that I find appealing, even if it’s the rain or feeling sad. I think that art and music are really hopeful things. Like, Nick Drake, big downer, but actually it’s really hopeful!
I suppose I sort of like nonsense as well, like, why can’t we not make sense? We all have to make sense or something. I think it happens to me during performances, to try to do things that make sense, and then have this tonal shift of “this makes no sense, this is great!”. And I enjoy that. I suppose it’s quite hopeful. Other people would think that’s scary. I fall in the camp of like, “the infinite is great”. It is scary but it’s…huge, and that’s good. And I’m never trying to say “this is the only meaning of this” (pointing at a single object), it’s almost the opposite (pointing outwards).