To some, Billy Childish will come off as a crank. He's outspoken and has little patience for authority or institutions. It's the reason he was kicked out of St. Martin's School of Art in England when he was 16.
You might call him a primitivist for the raw, gut-level attack of his music and art, but that reeks too much of the Romantics with their folk art and noble savages, something Childish would have nothing to do with. He believes in honest, emotional, unmediated art, eschewing both fashion and overly conceptual art.
"Ideas are the problem. Ideas are only ideas. They aren't authentic," Childish says, speaking from the U.K. "Every idea that man ever had either started in idiocy or ended in it, and the trick is not to get caught up in ideas."
An exhibit featuring the art of Billy Childish is scheduled to open Sunday, September 2
Childish remembers loving music since he heard The Beatles' "She Loves You" in 1963, when he was 4. Fourteen years later, he started making music when some friends recruited him to front their group TV21 in the wake of the British punk explosion. He's been making rockabilly/R&B/garage/punk ever since, recording as many as 100 albums for a wide variety of acts, including Pop Rivets, Thee Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, and most famously, Thee Headcoats and Thee Headcoatees.
His music is generally lo-fi, sloppy, and full of rough edges forgiven for the passionate intensity, energy, and healthy dose of humor. An organism ideally suited to punk's emotional amateurism, Childish complains how quickly punk became "the new Romanticism," bemoaning the influence of David Bowie, and punk's gravitation toward fashion and the inauthentic.
"Music was okay when it was an interest, and that goes for football and poetry and all these things, but once they become careers, then it becomes a bit despicable," says Childish, who, not coincidentally, boasts 12 years of painting on the dole. "It depends on how large you want the audience to be. My theory is that a corner shop can't function like a supermarket."
Certainly, Childish's music is more the cult favorite than something you'd find at Best Buy, though that's hardly an indictment. For Childish, it's less a question of whether artists are successful everyone wants an audience than whether their intentions are authentic.
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"People strive to be original, when all they need to do is be authentic. You can be authentic and still be really useless, but at least you're being authentic," Childish says. "Most things are pitched, and that's why they're useless and inauthentic. People think, 'Well, I'll try this,' or, 'If we do this, maybe that will happen.' That's why things are dull and boring, because they're predictable. Even if they're the most original idea going, they're still predictable because it's like a sales pitch."
Childish recognizes that he's setting a standard few can attain, and he's comfortable with that.
"I'm very moral. I [believe in] integrity, honesty, and teaching people respect for not being overly greedy, trying to be honest about our greed and our faults, and trying to be a decent human being," Childish says. "Artists aren't anywhere near as special as they think they are. You get a good plumber and it's like a miracle. Or a trustworthy mechanic, but I tell ya, a trustworthy artist is harder to find."