by Gord Wilson
GW: Should we start the Steve Scott story in 1970?
SS: I did my foundation course in Essex at Lighton College of further Education then I was at Croyden College of Art from 1971 to 1975. I did three years in the fine arts program, and then did an extra year in film and mixed media, animation, things like that.
GW: At some point there was, shall we say, a collision of worlds, yourself being influenced by some form of evangelical churchmanship, which almost nobody would connect to this sort of an arts interest.
SS: The whole thing kind of happened at once. When I was in high school, I and some friends went to an evangelical Christian outreach. It was a coffee bar, where they give you coffee and you sit down and listen to a gospel group. Like a coffee house, but I think it met in a church hall or something. I started to get involved with a small evangelical free church from that point on. I would say I became a Christian from that point on.
SS: That’s the point in time I would date my conscious conversion to the Christian faith from. It was the late ‘sixties and I was stepping into two subcultures. The evangelical church subculture, and the art school alternative counterculture of the time.
GW: Do I not see echoes of that in all your songs?
SS: I’m sure the tension between those two worlds is there. One, whatever one inherits when one starts going to a local church and declaring oneself to be part of that particular process or movement, and two, in the mid to late ‘sixties stepping into the stream of art school culture, and everything that was blossoming around then, which was moving from pop culture and mods and rockers, pop art, very early happenings, into full-blown alternative culture, flower power, psychedelia, Pink Floyd, seeing the Who and Jimi Hendrix play, going and seeing the Mothers of Invention. I kind of stepped onto two elevators at once, as it were, one foot on each.
GW: But no one really would think they’re going the same place. I’m playing devil’s advocate here, and it’s a particularly stupid devil. But the stupid devil would say, you can’t be part of all these happenings because they’re all about being nude and rolling about in bags and having sex with everything that moves. And you’re stuck in this evangelical backwater, so why did Steve manage to do something no one else can do? We find out hundreds of years later that Marshall McLuhan, the media critic of the age, was a Catholic, but the reason we find it out hundreds of years later is because he made a line where nothing Catholic was ever allowed to intrude into his professional life. For some reason, Steve doesn’t have that line.
SS: Well, I avoided the stereotypical behaviors associated with that alternative culture. I was, as an evangelical Christian, talking to people about my faith and getting into all kinds of arguments about that. I found myself having different kinds of arguments depending on the subculture I was `in’ at the time. On one hand, there would be arguments about Christianity and whatever variation of crypto or neo-Marxism was doing the rounds that week, or Christianity versus some drug- induced revelation. On the other hand, I’d go to a prayer meeting, and ten minutes before I might be noodling around on the piano, and I might use a few black notes along with the white notes, and someone might come up and make a quiet remark about “music offered to strange gods.”
However, looking back at that time, I would say that a generation or so later, with labels like `the post evangelical’ and the `emerging church’ that an increasing number of people are understanding that cultural disengagement and irrelevance are not things to be proud of, or to be regarded as a higher spiritual plane.
GW: That pretty much explains the state of television, doesn’t it? It’s like it is because there’s no one in it making it some other way.
SS: It’s one thing to avoid doing certain things because you don’t want to get trapped by them. It’s one thing to be part of a community that intends to help you avoid doing those things because you don’t want to be trapped by them. But when insularity becomes your badge, when it becomes, “Jesus Christ, Him crucified, and the way we do things here,” then not only have you diluted and distorted the gospel, you’ve also created a market for all those disaffected, post-denominational, post-evangelical, post-born again, emerging, liquid, ancient-future--you name it, because one can trace these issues in the church all the way back to the 1960s.
say we’re two or three generations deep now of people who’ve
attempted to engage with some kind of evangelical truth,
been put off by the adjunct culture, and attempted to find
some way of moving around the culture and redescribing the
truth in a way that makes sense to them and their friends.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that every time something
emerges, give it six months and it will end up sanitized and
spun for the marketplace. Like what is referred to as
Contemporary Christian Music or alt. Christian rock. It
sounds like real music that’s been fed through something.
GW: Of course, if you listen to alt radio these days, it seems like that too.
SS: Yes, there’s a kind of wallpaper flavor to just about everything. Even though some of the patterning on the wallpaper stands out or stood out at some point, when you get stations that run from the ‘80s through to what’s currently being played, you hear bands that tailor their sound, without a hint of irony, and try to capture a particular demographic.
GW: The legend goes that somehow you show up at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, in New York, with a plastic bag full of poems. Is that just a made up legend?
SS: When I came to visit America in 1976, I contacted the guy who was running the readings at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. (I think his name was Ed Freidman) to discuss a possiblilty of a reading, and he scheduled me with someone else later that summer. I was in New York at the beginning of the summer, then I was on the west coast for a while and I hit New York on the way back out and did a Monday night reading. I’d just had a little book called Ghost Dance come out, which was published in England, and was sort of a collage poem.
When I was in America I had a 16mm print of Ghost Dance with me, which I screened here and there. It’s a collage film with some 16mm footage off the TV screen, I bought some old reels of standard 8mm film and we projected that and I filmed some of that back, intercutting TV footage, the negatives along with the original and also the black and white cutting copy which was kind of inferior and grainy, and coming up with a hybrid collage film. I’d gotten a composite print of that whole thing made and I was screening that. The book was an attempt to do in print what I’d done with the film. So I did a few readings in England and in America with that.
As I say, I’d seen a number of films made this way, collage films, re edited found footage etc and I wanted to do some work in this way. After I got back from America, the next thing I did was put together a four screen film project called Correspondences, that was part of something called the Expanded Cinema festival at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. That was a week long event with everyone from established filmmakers, sculptors, other people doing artistic things with film, multi-projection events, right down to student types such as myself who managed to squeeze a slot in there somewhere. Correspondences was some footage I had shot and edited into four reels. With four projectors going, you created a kind of collage film poem in which different sections mirrored each other, or corresponded in some way with what else was being projected.
I came returned
to America in 1977. That happened because while I was
enrolled at the Croydon School of Art,
I met Randy Stonehill who introduced me to Larry Norman who liked some of my songs. While I was out for a visit in 1976, we’d talked about the possibility of doing a record. So I came back in 1977 and we began to do preliminary work on an album that was to be called Moving Pictures. People working on it were Tom Howard and Mark Heard and Randy Stonehill and Jon Linn and other luminaries. The album got close to being finished but a variety of things happened with myself and with Solid Rock, Norman’s record company, and stuff. And I ended up moving to Sacramento and getting involved with Warehouse Christian Ministries principally because they expressed great interest in the arts.
I began to pursue the idea of thinking about art and making art in Sacramento, along with the idea of talking about art and thinking about where we were going as artists. There was obviously room for ongoing reflection and conversation around these issues. Twenty five plus years on there still is. I drew upon what I’d seen at Nigel Goodwin’s Arts Centre group, what I’d heard from people like Hans Rookmaaker, and the like. I desired to take the best of what I’d heard there, the best of what I’d seen done by artists in England in the ‘seventies: film maker Norman Stone, Poet/Rock journalist Steve Turner, bands like the Technos and After the Fire. In my opinion there was an awful lot of promising stuff going on in terms of both popular culture and artistic practice in that first generation (that I was aware of) of Christian thinkers and artists who were coming out of L’Abri and the influence of Francis Schaeffer and the Arts Centre group.
Last time I checked, I think Peter Banks of After the Fire was living in Walthamstow which is where I was born. Rupert Loydell is the cousin of Beverly Sage, the wife of the late, lamented Steve Fairnie. Bev was in a singing trio called Soul Truth (then based in the coastal town of Torquay), and in that singing trio was a woman named Judy who ended up marrying Andy Piercy of After the Fire. I first ran into them them at an event which I think was a Youth for Christ thing, (Youth week 69 or 70) at which the young Nigel Goodwin spoke, as well as the Reverend Canon Harry Sutton. Goodwin was the founding figurehead of the Arts Centre group in London, who put out the magazine, Cut. This was 1970. The young Andy Piercy was there, the young Steve Fairnie was there Fiarnie and the other Steve (Rowles) formed a band called Fish Co., and then The Technos (full name Techno Twins). Bev was part of that too.
Andy was part of or was becoming part of a folk duo called Ishmael and Andy. I think after Andy went on to After the Fire, Ishmael had a couple of bands: Ishmael United, a sort of punk rock outfit, and then Rev Counta and the Speedoze. The afore mentioned Nigel Goodwin was just starting the Arts Centre group in Kensington. Shortly after that Youth Week, Goodwin was leading a group of art students through the Richard Hamilton show at the Tate gallery. I ended up tagging along. Richard Hamilton was identified with the UK end of the pop art scene, along with people like Peter Blake, who did the Sgt Pepper sleeve. Hamilton did that famous painting of Mick Jagger in handcuffs.
But a lot of the stuff I had been exposed to in my own sort of art school/ counterculture/ poetry reading meanderings had given me a broader exposure at a primary level to what was going on in the ‘sixties and in the arts. I thought, there’s got to be more to how we engage with the culture. It’s not just about what Rookmaaker and Schaeffer are talking about. I saw Rookmaaker lecture at the Royal College of Art in 1973. The feeling I got was that he would be the last one to assume that he represented any sort of closure on the conversation. People like him always struck me as being in process and open to discussion and understanding that this was just the beginning of something. Unfortunately, some of the conversations I had with some of the people who came up around them had more of an over simplified sense of closure, and an “insider/ outsider” approach to things.
Steve Scott with Balines
If you’ve had any kind of exposure to the mindset that goes with certain aspects of the evangelical church there’s this kind of closure and shutting down that occurs. Traditionally it occurs when they start talking about Andrew Murray or Watchman Nee or the Keswick Convention or some sort of deeper of higher life experience. Some kind of demarcation, like that’s it. A kind of badge, a secret handshake, a magic decoder ring, the ‘in’ crowd etc. with a corresponding reduced view of everything. When you encounter that in the context of the pietistic tradition of the evangelical subculture , that’s one thing.
But I encountered the same sort of apathy toward what was happening on the fringes of the artistic community, It was all reductively filtered through what people thought they understood of Schaeffer and Rookmaaker-- sort of “ok, we’ve got it, this is how it is.” I was just seeing too much real art, and so I thought, no, it’s not as simple as that.” On the other hand,to be fair, Goodwin and Rookmaaker never came off like, “ok, we’ve got it,” but rather their approach was, “this is the beginning of a conversation and we’re in this for the long haul.”
And there was huge cultural change going on. If I wanted to sum it up in a nutshell, what I was getting a whiff of when I was hanging out in the art world or the art scene per se, as sort of a hanger on or fringe observer, was the culture that would later be described by some as “post-modernism.” This culture was emerging through the late ‘sixties into the ‘seventies. The underlying theory began to show up in large chunks towards the end of the ‘seventies. All those kinds of scepticisms about the nature of truth, about politics, about cultural dominance, about the relation of language to reality, about science’s description of reality, all those were part of the brew, and were part of what was influencing artistic practice.
The thing that I felt about the modes of analysis being attributed to Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker was that when they were talking about art, they were talking about modernism as a cul de sac, as a philosophical statement, but this was as modernism was being eclipsed by postmodernism. I thought, that’s all well and good, but we’re all post-modern now. What do you have to say about that?
be fair, Rookmaker was not alone in doing `art as a window
onto a larger set of social concerns’. John Berger’s Ways of
Seeing was out about
then. I’m aware that there is Marxist analysis and
other kinds of left of center social analysis of what was
happening in culture, that did not idealize culture, but saw
it embedded in a particular social and historical matrix. I
look at someone like Rookmaaker like, “ok, we’ve got the
Marxist one, maybe the Frankfurt School one, and here’s one
that comes out of a Dutch Reformed approach to things.” If I
were to imagine a bookshelf, I would put Rookmaaker next to
John Berger, Albert Hauser, Raymond Williams or any of those
guys who are attempting to do a large scale diagnostic and
locate art or artistic practice or artistic result as
symptomatic, whether they’re arguing from the political
right or left, or whatever.
In another sense, I can see Rookmaaker well in place for what was going on as the attempt to come up with a particular kind of Christian position in a European culture say, in Amsterdam. Working under the influence of people like Abraham Kuyper, coming out with the application of Kuyper’s ideas to culture. There’s a whole gaggle of guys out there attempting to locate art socially. When we get to the ideas of Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker in England and America, that’s good, and it’s a darn site better than the way things were, because people on my end of things (the evangelical church of the time) had really cultivated a kind of insularity and nostalgia for the way things were and they turned it into a certain kind of place where you had to be if you were to call yourself a Christian.
I certainly benefitted from exposure to Schaeffer and Rookmaaker. It certainly set me on a path. I was seeing a lot of art and I was looking for some kind of approach to the arts that took into consideration the broader and swifter currents of what was going on. While I felt that Rookmaaker would be open to that conversation based on what I heard him say at the Royal College of Art, what you’ve got going on around and on the fringes, seemed to exhibit the same premature closure and apathy that one associated with other sections of the church at that time. That was my experience. There may have been a whole gaggle of people who were totally engaged and completely on track, relevant in their practice, I just didn’t know about them.
GW: You once said, “How an idea is expressed has its own integrity and its own accountability.” I almost feel that sums up the whole idea of your books.
SS: Yeah, someone else put it like this, talking about arts in the church. It’s whether you communicate with art or through art. If you communicate with art, then art obviously has its own rules it’s going to follow. If you communicate through art then whatever you do with the art is going to be subordinate to what you want to communicate. There’s a prior rationalization that says, it’s important that the message gets out or through, and you’ll bend (artistic) rules for that purpose.
GW: So would you say with McLuhan that the medium is the message?
SS: To an extent, how you choose to communicate something will become part of what you communicate.
GW: At some point you were writing songs for the Scratch Band, which became the 77s.
SS: After I moved up from Los Angeles and began to get some music things going, Scratch Band came together. Sharon McCall was singing for them, with Mike Roe and Jan Eric Voltz and drummer, Mark Proctor (I think). They decided to cover one of my songs, “Different Kind of Light,” which was going to be on Moving Pictures. They also did live versions of songs like “Wild Boys” and “The Thief Song” both of which were on a CD called ‘Shirley, Goodness and Misery’.
GW: Why didn’t Moving Pictures come out?
SS:. Things were getting increasingly foggy for me at Solid Rock
Records: finish/ mix down and release dates kept getting pushed back. I finally gave up and left the project before it was finished.
All that to one side, regardless of the pros and cons of Solid Rock and or the stories that swirl around Larry Norman, I do think he’s made an immensely valuable, foundational contribution to the whole contemporary Christian music industry…and I don’t understand how someone that everyone nods towards and acknowledges as seminal ends up apparently scrabbling to pay for medical bills.
In my opinion, the ccm industry owes that guy so much for opening the door for so many people. If there was some kind of royalty structure attached to pioneering things and creating a huge market, you wouldn’t think he’d be looking at any kind of financial worries.
GW: He’s probably got post traumatic shock syndrome from being the visible target for anything and everyone from day one.
SS: The guy took all the bullets, created the market, and now (apparently) has to scrounge around to get money to stay alive. I’m not addressing the complex, legal, lawyer/ shark business aspect, I’m just saying that in real world terms (or `preferred real world’), he’s owed a lot more than he’s currently getting from those parts of the machine that benefited the most from his pioneering work.
GW: Do you see any recurring themes in your art?
SS: The constants are I like collage, I like juxtaposing things, in everything I was doing in film and poetry. I look for very simple rudimentary patterns and try and build around those patterns, whether it’s a bass guitar sequence or film clips or the use of words.
GW: You’re kind of minimalist in that respect.
SS: I wouldn’t use the word ‘minimalist,” because my understanding of that concept/ label in art/ historical terms is the attempt to try and get back to the essence of the object or strip the relationship between the object and the viewer back down to its core constituents. Yes, I use very limited or minimal means, but for different reasons. I like kaleidoscopes and collage. I look for patterns when I’m writing poetry or writing songs or attempting some kind of visual thing, whether it be film or even in a book. If I write a full length book I will be looking for some sort of symmetry, resonance, emerging pattern. I’m more interested in things that start small but end up having multilayered effects. Like The Butterfly Effect, as my first spoken word album was called.
GW: Somehow you started making record albums.
SS: I started to write songs about local situations and people I knew or books I was reading. I’d layer a book title over the top of a situation I was aware of with a friend, or if I’d been travelling, I’d layer in bits of travel journal or fragments of that at one point. Like in the song, “Emotional Tourist” on the Lost Horizon CD, it has bits from Berlin, bits from being in a taxi cab in Delhi, India. They’re all woven or stitched together.
The character in “Emotional Tourist” was probably the beginning of The Boundaries, which are poetry/ travel journals. That way of working was the beginning of the process for The Boundaries. Around the time that David Bowie’s album, Lodger, came out, there was an interview in some rock magazine, New Musical Express or Melody Maker, and he was asked at one point because of all his exotic musical references whether or not he could be accused of just being an emotional tourist. And I thought, well that’s an interesting turn of phrase! At that time also, I’d just seen Bowie in the film, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, the film based on the Laurens Van der Post book. This is where the ritual suicide image came from in the third verse. So I was just stealing stuff from really good people, mashing it together, hanging it on a sort of improvised framework of things I was going through. Things from here and there, fragments of travel journal, bits from a film I’d just seen, so the song process and the song content was very much about skipping from surface to surface.
GW: But somehow having a visceral impact.
SS: I felt the song had a certain kind of impact. I felt it created a picture of someone who never gets beyond the surface of things. If my record, Love in the Western World set up certain kinds of personae and knocked them down, talking very glibly about romantic love or the collapse of language or what have you, all the big ideas, in a very glib, self-referential, poppy kind of way, then “Emotional Tourist” went further and began to probe the idea of geography as history. In the song, “This Sad Music,” I used a remote control to click between a TV preacher and a newscast on dying whales, and the extension or variation of that approach. At last, if we follow the line into `Emotional Tourist’ and some of the later spoken word stuff, we come up with a series of “wish you were here” postcards referencing other cultures. Although as my exposure to some of those cultures deepened, my work and ideas began to change.
Chronologically, Love in the Western World was the first album, released on the Exit label around 1983-’84. Moving Pictures was from the late ‘70s, and bits of it have leaked onto other projects. Then there was the Emotional Tourist album, which never came out as such, and turned into Lost Horizon. It was supposed to come out on Exit/ A&M, and at one point I think it was in the pipeline for Island Records. They did put out albums by the 77s and Charlie Peacock, who had both been on Exit. Magnificent Obsession came out with tracks that weren’t on Lost Horizon plus some live stuff. (Lots of hats off and applause to Randy Layton and Alternative Records for stepping in and resurrecting those projects and putting his muscle and money and stuff into being Alternative Records to get that stuff out). After that I did a spoken word project for Mike Knott’s record company, Blonde Vinyl Records, called The Butterfly Effect. And applause to Chris Rhumba for getting me to Blonde Vinyl!
GW: That is an amazing album. What you call spoken word many people would call performance art.
Yes, that’s like throwing the word “minimalism”
around. Performance art, as I recall, was where people
stepped away from the canvas on the wall and actually
put themselves in real time: Joseph Beuys living in a
room with a coyote for three days, Christopher Burden
having himself nailed to a volkswagen. At the more
accessible end of performance art would be someone like
Laurie Anderson, who came out of a hard core gallery
approach to things into a more populist, mixed-media
GW: Do you morph at all into your other spoken word albums? Is there any change or is it continuing down the same path?
SS: It’s definitely changing, but all the art I do revolves around rudimentary patterns and approaches to collage. The Butterfly Effect began by creating these sound loops in the studio and reading poems over the top. By the time we get to my later spoken word album, We Dreamed That We Were Strangers, the work that I’m doing in The Boundaries, which is a collection of travel journals and poems or poetic commentary on those travel journals, that’s starting to shade into what I’m doing in the recording studio. I’m reading sections of The Boundaries over the top of sound loops, so the album begins to draw more on the prose and poetry of the emerging Boundaries sequence of books.
After that I did a project called Empty Orchestra. While I was in Holland touring The Butterfly Effect we started playing back the backing tracks. And we said, wouldn’t it be great to put an album of real minimal, ambient loops out. So Empty Orchestra was that project, Empty Orchestra is the literal translation of ‘karaoke’. So I wanted to do an album where everyone could be Steve Scott for a day so long as the only part of Steve Scott you want to be is the person doing spoken work performances. We printed the poems on the sleeve so that people who were sick of the sound of my voice could be me for the day.
I think More Than a Dream came next. That was a side step back to the rock songs. Empty Orchestra, We Dreamed That We Were Strangers, More Than a Dream and Crossing the Boundaries were all projects taken on by the late, lamented Mike Lucci. Mike and Heidi Lucci, then living in Kansas City, got involved in putting on local events and they had me come out to Kansas to do something like a lecture on the arts and a poetry reading. They started a local ‘zine and they had me write some stuff for them. It was called Entire Vision. Mike got hooked up with Mike Delaney of Rad Rockers and brought my projects in under Rad Rockers. Mike Delaney, God bless him, stepped out and was no longer just a guy keeping a lot of really good alternative Christian music visible, but he also got into the business of putting out Steve Scott projects on Glow Records. Initially championed by the Lucci family, Delaney stepped in and put his shoulder to the wheel and his and was Mr. Record Label.
All these guys: Larry Norman, Randy Layton, Randy Stonehill, the Luccis, Delaney. They’re all due incredible amounts of adulation and applause and flowers and chocolates for what they did to basically keep Steve Scott artistically afloat. Along with Exit Records, and the Neelys and the Warehouse. All those things are very, very good and nothing would be happening without that, but I really think a lot of credit is due to the groupthought of Larry Norman, the enterpreneurial aspects of Randy Layton, the Luccis, Mike Delaney, and all guys on the cultural fringe who believe in something and just keep pushing to make it happen.
GW: I still think, like I wrote in The Gargoyle, which is the journal of the Malcolm Muggeridge Society in London, that you really ought to be on Virgin Records or some label like that.
SS: I’m ready when they are. Glow Records did put some albums out. There’s one called ‘More Than a Dream’ which we can describe as idiosyncratic.
GW: There’s an excellent song on that album called ‘Descending of the Dove’, and does it or does it not remind me of Charles Williams’ book, The Descent of the Dove?
SS: That’s where I stole the title from. Someone wrote to me and said “We would be playing ‘Descending of the Dove’ in our church as a praise song, but for the out of tune singing in the chorus.”
GW: That’s of course the part I like.
SS: Yes, it’s sort of like an Irish pub song, with me playing tin whistle.
GW: And how many churches have you been to where everyone’s singing on key? Completely off the track, will there be any Steve Scott downloads?
SS: I don’t know. What would be better is if bands wanted to do their own versions of my songs. I’ve got more book projects, one on the arts in progress called “In the Shadow of God”. It is a follow up to Like A House on fire and Crying for a Vision. What I really want to do is more spoken work projects. I have sound loops made from ambient recordings made in southeast Asia and eastern Europe. I’ve been combining these things and coming up with multilayered and multitextured sound beds, and I have the poems to read over the top. I need to finish the tracks and CDs and complete the cover designs and go. I also need to finish The Boundaries. About a third of it has been published in various volumes, but the new edition will be a one volume edition called The collected Boundaries.
(A version of this interview appeared in “Crying for a Vision and Other Essays” (2007).