“You can't get away with everything.”
- 10 minute read
- Published June 30, 2015
- Interview by Mo
Neil was born and raised in a city named Lawrence, located in the northeastern part of Kansas, for the first 27 years of his life. For some, the thought of Kansas being a creative basket might seem questionable, but for Neil, it was where his mother influenced the path he's on now—which brings us together, today, to discuss the influences and foundation of Neil's vibrant, eclectic work.
Mo: What's new in Neil's world? I know you recently shot A$AP Rocky.
Neil: So much has been going on but a lot of it I can't talk about because of NDA's. But I'll say this: There's a handful of campaigns that will be coming out for the rest of the year. I probably have done four or five that haven't come out yet. Some don't even have dates assigned to them yet.
Neil: But A$AP Rocky was cool. That was sort of a quick one. I think I had two hours or something with him. [laughing]
Neil: In the last year-and-a-half, I’ve probably shot two or three books worth of material that I'm kind of organising. In my spare time when I'm home, I try to sit down in my little studio and just weave through everything.
Mo: How has this year been different compared to last year?
Neil: 2013 was one of the worst years of my life for a number of reasons. It was crippling in so many ways. At the end of the year, I sat myself down in my bathroom [laughing] on New Year's Eve in the darkest of moods. I didn't want to go into the new year with this attitude.
Neil: I'm not a religious person whatsoever, but something within me suggested to become my own drill sergeant. For whatever reason this paradigm shift began to take hold and the next year  was amazing. I felt really blessed and things I wanted fell right before me. It was sort of like getting my groove back. There was this really voracious appetite of having things to be raw again, virile looking. I could feel my fevered energy coming back again whereas before I was asleep at the wheel or something. Last year felt like: "OK, you're back. Good to see you again!" Even friends of mine noticed a huge change in me.
Neil: This year is kind of the same thing. You're alive, you're well and blessed to be doing what you're doing. So, show people what you can really do now. Don’t be afraid.
Mo: It's great to put food on the table—you need to. But at the same time, you're stuck trying to inject your own interpretation—your vision—while making the client happy. How did you do that last year and this year?
Neil: What you're kind of saying is sort of the answer to the question, too. There's only so much you can do with other people. In the bubble of this conversation, yeah, we can be really analytical about it. In the grand scheme of things, am I happy to be doing what I'm doing? Absolutely, and if someone else took my place I'd be pissed.
Neil: In the context of what we're talking about, if you're working in service to something, you're meeting criteria that has to be met, so you can't get away with everything. There are things you can't do with album covers because they won't be printed or will give you a bad reputation. [laughing] It's sort of a watered down version of what you really can do sometimes. But if I get 75 percent there I'll be happy, because I put my best effort into it.
Mo: And when you mention that it entertains vulnerability. As an artist, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable towards that anticipation of inspiration. With you, Neil, your work has this ceaseless amount of vibrancy, and I would say authentic but that word is used too many times for too many things. [both laughing]
Mo: But how do you advocate a subject such as Lana Del Rey to be vulnerable with your work because of her perceived image?
Neil: I know what you mean. She’s been a fan of the Pulp Art books and didn't think I was alive—it's a long story. Whatever energy she saw in the Pulp books was what she wanted, or at least that’s the impression I had during “Ultraviolence”. I tried to put her at ease. Actually, I didn't even try. I just did because when we met, we just dove headfirst into our ideas and didn’t really look back.
Neil: For whatever reason, I can't really describe what brings that [vulnerability] out but I think it has to do with your energy, the energy you bring on that day. It's good not to be phony. With her, we’re always trying to do our best with the narrative of the imagery—getting the atmosphere right as well is what we’re all about.
Neil: I'm interested in the story or some sort of narrative thread that moves along [pause] if not, I'm bored to tears. I want to put something subliminally into the work to unravel a completely loose narrative that I may not know when I’m making it.
Neil: I think there are some people you groove with and there's some people you don't, you know. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you go: "Ah, that's a shame. I wish that would've worked better." She's [Lana] just like hanging out with my sister and it's super relaxed and there's no pressure.
Select images of Lana Del Rey
Mo: Regarding your interest in the narrative, what are some essential elements that you try to inject in a story?
Neil: For me, its all about the mood and sequence. That being said, sometimes things can just be a visceral experience. In the context of what we're talking about with Lana, an album campaign should have a narrative because her records are a narrative of whatever is going on in her life.
Neil: For me, unless I'm doing something with computer graphics and matte paintings—something allegorical and in your face—let's let the audience tell us, too. Let's give them something but not say everything. Let them have their own interpretation so it leaves them wanting more rather than saying, "Here it is. What'ya think?" [laughing] I'm a little bit more discerning than that. Let's give it some energy—lay some bread crumbs—but not give everything away. If you're watching a good movie, there are seeds a good director plants that lead you, so when it comes back around you realise the intention.
Mo: I'm not going to bother with specific gear because for you it's varied and the energy and mood primarily develop the image. But one thing I am interested in within your process is how long it can take to edit or characterise an image? What has been the shortest and longest amount that it took you to do that for one image?
Neil: I use so many different things. There's not one specific thing that I run to. For me, personally, that's what keeps it exciting—there's so many different things to choose from. I don't want it to ever be defined by this one tool because it just gets old and monotonous. I think there's a look that comes through that looks very familiar but I really do use everything and anything I can get my hands on. It completely depends, you know. If I'm using a large format Polaroid and just putting up a black and white image, the only thing that will go into it is just me cleaning it and getting a really good hi-res scan of it. But there's times where I completely reconstruct something whether I shoot on medium format film or 35mm. I strip everything out, I paint it and then I scan it and such—there's so many different things to do. And then there's times where I'm taking my iPhone pictures and completely reconstructing them and repainting them, which sometimes look great. [laughing]
Neil: There's no rule. I just go to whatever makes the most sense today. Sometimes it could take 30 minutes, ten minutes, no minutes. Maybe its all digital and that's all that needs to be said. Some things can take a whole day or a week. It just depends. Some of the matte paintings that I do for album covers [pauses] those can take forever. [laughing]
Neil: I just work on it until I feel like its finished. There's no chart on my wall that goes, [in a Southern accent] "Well, if you're over here and you got ya 35mm, it's gonna take ya about five minutes!" [both laughing]
Mo: So, how have your friends and family influenced your thinking?
Neil: My mum is the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing, entirely. She has from day one supported me even when I didn't know what I was talking about. I'm forever grateful to her for that because you need at least one person like that, I think, in my experience. You need someone in that corner cheering you on knowing that this is rough. That person will be there when you're trying to find your own way. Everyone has their own path. For me, I grew up in Kansas so I had no idea how to become a working-visual-artist-person. I didn't even know what that meant or how one could become that. So, I found my own way. I taught myself.
Neil: A lot of really late nights and hard years cutting your teeth—this still goes on. I think the reason that I'm highlighting my mom here is because my dad, on the flip side of things, is very religious and from a different school of thought. I would have to read scriptures on Sunday, but then would go to my mom’s house and put on "Night of the Living Dead” from 1968. I think that's the best way of putting it. Your bible on Sunday and then your horror later that night. I'd be thanking God for Night of the Living Dead! [laughing]—these moments carved who I am today. Having that dichotomy quickly informs your soul of what you’re really after, and what your taste is because you can only get it half the time. And when you do get it you feel this sense of relief wash over you. Its weird to me even now because I'll gaze into my images when I'm painting and go, “Oh man, it's Night of the Living Dead right here!”
Mo: It does. You're mentioning a well-needed balance people need to have or strive for.
Neil: I have no complaints and I'm thankful to have that experience.
Mo: Which do you find is harder to maintain, being different or consistent?
Neil: Always being different. People generally want what you've already done, if that's what they're seeing. The moodboard will be passed around and you'll notice that they're trying to do something you did a couple of years ago. So, what ends up happening is that the work is you, but it was you from three years ago. It was great then, you loved it then, but you don't want to do it now, however, you do want this job so I guess we'll just do it! [both laughing] You try to inject something new and hope for the best.
Neil: Your personal work is what serves you best, sometimes, in terms of growth, maybe not money or exposure, but just idea growth.
Mo: And within growth, how do you continually aim to expand out of that creative security?
Neil: The only creative security I have is knowing that I'm trying to do something new. If I feel like I'm moving back, I'll feel very ill—I'm wasting my own time. The creative security for me is just knowing that I'm feeling inspired. I think if you're not feeling inspired then it's just time to change your scenery or something in your life that will allow you to. There are things that I was heavily into when I was 24 that I don't think about at all now that I'm 31. That was then and this is now.
Neil: There's the saying with silly horoscopes that mention, “abandoning the things that no longer serve you.” Silly or not, I make an effort of applying that idea whenever I can to keep my sanity somewhat in check. I think of creative security as: “What gets me up and inspires me to do something?” And if I don't feel like getting up and doing it then its probably not a great idea. [laughing] If it feels new and different and I'm a bit nervous about it then I feel like its the right thing to do.
Mo: Have you found yourself always excited about your work the past five years?
Neil: Not always. Sometimes I don't want to do anything visual for a while, and hopefully there’s time available for a break. I took last summer off, which I don't think I’d ever done in my adult life, and it was such a relief because when you're constantly generating stuff, you're in vacuum of execution mode. It's good to have time to shut up and sit there quietly and simply go live. And when you come back to it, you're sort of different even if you're not really aware of it.
Select images from Neil's Pulp Art Book
Mo: I understand what you're saying. For me, I haven't published an interview in months, but I had to stop for a while and ask what I'm putting into the universe. And now that I'm back, it's exciting. It's nice to be excited. I think that when you're excited is when your best work comes out of you.
Neil: Yeah, definitely. And doing the work sometimes and coming up with ideas is sadly the most exciting part. Once it actually comes out it's not that exciting. When I look back at it, the most fun I've ever had is right before I'm doing the project and then the moment is sort of over, I still care, but it's like you've already had sex. You're done, and it's time to go eat! [both laughing] For lack of a better word, you've just finished. Once you get the printed package in the mail or whatever it might be, it's sort of like wha-wha-wha. [laughing] You wanna go eat? Let me put gas in my car. [both laughing]
Mo: No, no. I get what you're saying. You put something out into the world and reality quickly kicks you. It's humbling, you know. You realise how there's not this big, guaranteed parade when you do or release something.
Neil: Yeah, its humbling, exactly. I think after every big project I've finished, when it’s printed or there's billboards across town, usually you're at home doing your laundry when it comes. [laughing] There's no one around. There's no bottles of champagne—it’s just another day in your life. You open the package up and you're like, "There it is. Cool!" And then you put it away.
Mo: You end up fucking your laundry up in the process.
Neil: You fold everything inside out—exactly. I get my inspiration from commingled laundry.
Mo: Be careful, Neil.
Neil: Its the laundry ritual where I find my inspiration and I hit the ground running.
Mo: Later this week, you're getting emails about how people's life has changed by doing their laundry. [both laughing]
Mo: But back to the interview. What, in your opinion, is the purpose of your work?
Neil: Hmm. I don't remember a time when I didn't think of imagery; it sort of has always been in my head. As a kid riding in the car with my parents, there's certain music that, no matter what would happen the moment, it would come on, and I couldn't enjoy it; the visual component would take over the sound.
Neil: The purpose, for me, whether taking pictures or making films [pauses] you're taking all the things to the table and you're sort of reaching in, and just vomiting it out. If you're working for a living and you're selling your images, what you're essentially selling is your perspective. I don't really get too analytical about the purpose of my work. I find myself doing it—I love it—and I'm just trying to make sure that I keep it moving.
- A few months after interviewing Neil, I randomly called him to say hi since I was in his neck of the woods. What was supposed to be a small chat, ended up as a two-hour phone call about carving ones ways through a scary, unpredictable career. That call helped me face the crippling fear that LA presented me and I can't thank Neil enough for helping me not feel alone. I just wanted to share a bit of Neil's generosity and how much I'm always thankful for the experiences these interviews lead to.
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Dunwich Radio, Delia Derbyshire, Madlib, Morricone, Boards of Canada, and mind-melting drone psych.
What are your hotspots?
Venice Boardwalk, the beach, camping in the van. Los Angeles (LA Poubelle) & London (Dishoom)
What have you read lately?
Through the Looking-Glass, The Sentinel, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Uber, Postamtes, Citymapper.
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