Richie Culver dives into the witch’s cradle

The artist offers a few words on what was intended to be his inaugural wordless project, ‘Alive in the Living Room’

Richie Culver’s practice is proof that there is a basis for a shared fear of mythic proportions: Good art is made infrequently and instinctively. Every one of his works is crafted in mere seconds; nothing is discarded. Though the actual act of art-making is not torturous or tedious for Culver, the everyday can be. Life is for agonizing; art is the instantaneous expulsion of the thoughts and urges that emerge from it.

Alive in the Living Room is exemplary of that ethos. The Hull-born, mostly London-based artist created the 27-minute “sound mass” in one take, but it was born from a whole adulthood of suffering from sleep paralysis. The piece is a near-immediate response to Culver asking himself, What if I just succumbed to it?

Alive in the Living Room is the most obvious embodiment of Culver’s semi-recent desire to remove text from his work. He’s best-known for paintings that feature extemporaneously-drawn phrases in large-scale lettering, reading like: “COMMERCIAL ARTIST DRIVES PAST CONCEPTUAL ARTIST IN A LAMBORGHINI” and “I AM HAPPY TO SEE OTHER ARTISTS DOING WELL (BUT NOT TOO WELL).” “I’m just vocalizing things that people don’t often want to admit,” the artist muses. Alive in the Living Room doesn’t contain any singing or spoken word, but Culver’s attempt to abandon that which he’s known for is only partially fulfilled. The branches that have spawned from the project thus far all feature text in some form: remixes from pessimist and bod [包家巷], a video by Allen-Golder Carpenter, and a hymnbook.

Maybe it’s the impulsivity behind Culver’s practice that propagates his fear that his art will be misread, his intentions misinterpreted, or his nuance missed altogether. Ahead of the September 22 release of Alive in the Living Room via Drowned by Locals, the artist offers more words on what was (at least in part) intended to be his inaugural wordless project.

Megan Hullander: You’ve spoken about the myth of the ‘tortured artist’ in terms of your sobriety and the act of art-making. But your work, it seems, does derive from pain, which functions within that myth. Do creative inspiration and creative energy come from different places for you?

Richie Culver: It’s all about places and people for me. I can gauge my mental and spiritual health on my relationship with two things: how I am in London, and how I am when I go to the countryside. Usually, there’s this tipping point where I need to get back to the city; I feel safer there. I’m not quite sure where that comes from… I need to know that there are crackheads running past—obviously staying away from me, but I like to know that they’re there. I like to know that there’s a rave happening somewhere—I’m not there, but I want to know that people are raving. I think it’s because I’m from a really small seaside town where very little happened. That’s what gives me creative energy: the darker things that happen in cities.

Megan: I know your initial push to make art was discovering Nan Goldin, and feeling like you’d experienced the types of things she captured. But what you’re describing sounds more like observation. Do you find that you’re more drawn to the latter as you get older? That just being near it is enough now?

Richie: I still feel like I’m stuck in experiences. When I was drinking and using and partying, I would never have made work about that kind of stuff, because it was too close to home. But now I’ve got separation from it. I guess there’s a worrying feeling about what I’ve done now, especially as my kids get older; the things that I write about in my music and my poetry are a million miles away from the dad I am. And, of course, they’re gonna get older, and they’re gonna want to know what my music is about. It’s something I’m slowly becoming aware of, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it—sensitively.

[What I want from art] never sits still in the box. The goalposts constantly move. I think, with music and sound, the last thing I ever wanted to be labeled as was an ‘outsider artist,’ it’s all self-taught, you know? I’ve literally just finished my master’s in painting at the Royal College [of London]. I didn’t need to go and do that; I did it for myself. I’m thinking about doing a PhD next…

“I need to know that there are crackheads running past—obviously staying away from me, but I like to know that they’re there. I like to know that there’s a rave happening somewhere—I’m not there, but I want to know that people are raving.”

Megan: With formal education for artists, there can be this perception that it boxes you in a bit, or wrongly instills this idea of what art is supposed to be. But beyond the industry know-how and technical literacy it offers, are there ways that this education serves you creatively?

Richie: It was something that I did for me, to better understand why I’m doing things. Going in as a mature student, it was hard to start from the ground up again. But I’ve made sure I’ve kept connected to those raw elements of the reactive work that I do.

Megan: Is tapping into different mediums a means of maintaining those raw impulses?

Richie: Of course. With age, you’re able to say things in a different way from a different angle, and put meaning behind it rather than being the struggling alcoholic artist or whatever. I think that is a dying breed. But then, of course, if you look at the best albums ever written, alcohol and drugs [are] connected to absolutely every one of them.

But my musical practice came first, really. I’d never been brave enough to put myself out there like that. I was getting decks when I was 14, 15, in the early stages of rave culture in the ’90s. I wanted to dedicate my life to the underground. But, of course, you go to the party, then you go to the afterparty, then another afterparty, then it’s Wednesday, and then a decade’s gone. All of a sudden, I’m back at my mom’s house, having sleep paralysis on the sofa. And then another decade goes by.

Megan: Is Alive in the Living Room about a specific instance of sleep paralysis or your larger relationship with it? Was there a sense of narrative you were trying to get across?

Richie: It starts off with what would be the grinding of the teeth; I do this thing where I put my bottom jaw forward, and push. It kind of settles down in the middle, and comes back at the end. There’s a thumping impulse within my body, tensing of [the] legs and everything. It used to be every night, but it’s definitely subsided. This music is me giving into it instead of trying to fight it. I’ve always wondered why my natural reaction [was] to fight—because I feel like I’m dying sometimes, like my air tubes are blocked. This record is about: What if you just give yourself to sleep paralysis? What happens in the witch’s cradle? Alive in the Living Room is about letting it take you.

“You go to the party, then you go to the afterparty, then another afterparty, then it’s Wednesday, and then a decade’s gone.”

Megan: It’s as if there are three acts to it—how did you decide the length of the piece as a whole?

Richie: I wanted it to be 27 minutes, like that age [when] so many artists die. And it was all completely improvised, I just went in there knowing that I wanted to make something live. It felt very abnormal to let it go without doing any vocals, [but] it was a little revolution for me to be able to step out of words.

I do whatever comes out in that moment; I’m a strong believer in doing things once. I’ve been [working like this] just about long enough to become good friends with my mistakes. And things just organically build around it. I like using equipment to the least of its capability, but to the best of my capability.

Megan: Is there a lot of stuff that doesn’t find its way to the public?

Richie: Not really, because I make so little work. It’s not like I’m sat on a bunch of songs or words. I’m not at that point yet, where I need a second name, or I’m making more money because I’ve got so much work. But I’m aware that the cup is getting fuller and fuller. And as my sound stops, to kind of go more abstract, maybe I will [adopt] an alias.

Megan: Would that be because you’d feel at odds with your reputation, where you’d need an alias to get away from it?

Richie: The end goal for me is to lose the text in my paintings. I’ve already started exploring that, and my visuals are becoming more abstract—but the text is still there, because I’m known for that. I’ve dug that hole now, I have to lay in it. But I feel like, if I can find that place where there’s less readable text on my paintings, then the [place where] my sound work lives will be more harmonious. My paintings can often be seen as dark humor, so it’s almost like my music is a better example of me. But I can never shake off the humor, because I’m a nice person, and I like to have a laugh. But don’t call it humor. Don’t call it funny. [Laughs] That’s the real me, you know?

“I like using equipment to the least of its capability, but to the best of my capability.”

Megan: I mean, you often reference Throbbing Gristle as an influence, and I think Genesis P-Orridge is a good example of someone who made art from both pain and joy. Do you imagine yourself ever making work from lighter places?

Richie: The only way that I could possibly do that would be to become an abstract painter, which is all gestures. Of course, if the paint was black and gray, then maybe it’d still be there. I would love to be an abstract painter, but I’d be scared that I wouldn’t be able to talk about my work very well.

Megan: Do you think the desire to add text, even if it is poetic, derives from a place of being afraid that people won’t get it, or will misinterpret it? Or do you feel okay about putting things into the world, and letting people take from it what they will?

Richie: Someone asked me recently why I referred to my work as minimalism and reductionism. One, because I write them on raw canvas, and then that’s it. And because you digest the text-based painting differently than you would an abstract painting, or a figurative painting. I’m just looking at contemporary culture—Twitter, Berghain, the I need to make money. I’m just vocalizing things that people don’t often want to admit.