“Whenever I’m feeling stuck creatively I always ask myself ‘what would the Beastie Boys do?’” The Kills Birds frontwoman on the 7 books that helped shape her aesthetic
Bosnian Canadian artist Nina Ljeti has broken through in industries notorious for nepotism by embracing the gritty, raw nature of her mediums. Her feral performances as the thrilling frontwoman of new wave punk band Kills Birds are no longer LA’s best kept secret—their self-titled debut record caught the attention of legendary artists like Dave Grohl and Kim Gordon. In directorial work for artists like Kirin J. Callinan, Soko, and Phoebe Bridgers, she experiments with clarity and excess. Her video for ’80s pop rock legends Crowded House follows casual conversations between Mac DeMarco and inanimate objects around a gloriously tacky home, cut with cloudy memories from the night before. Here, Ljeti gives Document seven books that inform her aesthetic and inspire ingenuity.
“Raymond Pettibon translates the spirit of punk music into the visual arts medium. Through his unparalleled originality, rebelliousness, and honesty, he inspired a 16-year-old me to take my love of punk and apply it to my work in film.
When I started making videos, I shot everything on a VHS camera because it was the best way for me to capture the energy, authenticity, and feeling of freedom I got from listening to punk. Today, the use of a VHS camera can also be seen as an act of defiance of an industry that does not support emerging artists—especially those who are women and/or minorities. DIY techniques like this are used so that artists can create without boundaries. I think that’s why the punk movement is still so relevant today. In the midst of political, environmental, and social upheaval, artists always find ways to create without having to conform.
Side note: I actually had the opportunity to work with Pettibon once. We filmed a retelling of Jackson Pollock’s biography in which he played Pollock and I played Lee Krasner. Pettibon threw raw eggs at me and splattered paint all over the walls of his studio. In between takes, he’d fall asleep with his dog Boo in his lap. That was the first and last time I saw him. I don’t know what ended up happening to that movie.”
A Period of Juvenile Prosperity by Mike Brodie
“Mike Brodie followed crust punks across the country, hopping trains and staying at squats with them along the way. His ability to capture the true essence of these kids is what makes this book so profound and romantic. I read that he was inspired by “punk rock idealism,” which is the exact feeling these photographs capture. The subjects of this book seem to exist in a world separate from our collective reality, but they are no less raw and real in their experience.
I’ve tried to translate Brodie’s photography work into the films I make, writing about characters similar to those he captured on trains across the country. But I never seem to get it right. Perhaps that’s because in trying to boil these people down into character descriptions and dialogue exchanges, I strip them of the very freedoms that make them so beautiful.”
Ray Gun: The Bible of Music & Style by Marvin Scott Jerrett
“A new discovery that speaks to all of my artistic sensibilities. A volume of the best content and covers of the now defunct Ray Gun magazine that ran in the 1990s.
Ray Gun has been hugely influential to me recently, inspiring me both in my video work, and the art I make for my band Kills Birds. What attracts me most to it is its artistic value. Most covers featured an iconic, moody image of a seminal ’90s artist and chaotic graphic design that’s still unprecedented for a magazine publication. I think Ray Gun should be a reference point for any artist inspired by ’90s aesthetics because it’s clear that it encapsulated the general vibe of that era.
The last issue came out in 2000. Why did this magazine have to end? Is it because alternative music is dead? Probably. I don’t know.”
Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz
“One of the best bands of all time. Whenever I’m feeling stuck creatively I always ask myself ‘what would the Beastie Boys do?’
As an artist, I’m particularly inspired by the late MCA (RIP). I respect his work ethic, his viewpoints, and his dedication to arts, spirituality, and education. He continues to inspire me to take more action in my work and life, and see the process of learning as part of creation.”
The Decorating Book by Mary Gilliatt
“’80s aesthetics have always been a huge influence in my work, in all their glory and gaudiness. A lot of my videos are satirical because I enjoy making fun of and exploring pop culture elements from the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s. It taps into my fascination with nostalgia. You can see this in my videos for Wallows and Phoebe Bridgers.
The Decorating Book also plays into my interests in set design which, to me, is as important to the composition of a shot as the subject itself. And in order to capture the essence of an era and satirize it effectively, you have to understand every aspect of its culture. That includes interior decoration. Otherwise, the joke just doesn’t land.”
Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
“In my songwriting, Rilke is of particular influence. I wish I could write like him but I can’t, so I try to absorb as much of his work as possible with the hope that I will subconsciously lift his words and pass them off as my own and maybe even get away with it somehow.
My favorite poem of his is “Blank Joy.” I have a line from that poem tattooed on me in Elvish.* Dedication.
*It was a hard decision, but The Lord of the Rings did not make this list.”
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
“I first read this book in college, when I was struggling with my identity and sense of self.
Different people take different lessons away from Siddhartha, but to me the message that resonates most is the necessity to find peace within ourselves in order to truly understand the world around us. Hesse’s book alludes to life as being a complete circle of experiences which we have to go through in order to find ourselves. I want to be a person that views everything in this world with love and understanding, but I’m finding that difficult in the chaos that surrounds us. That’s why I revisit this book constantly. It’s a reminder.”