Art NotesArts & Culture

Swell Maps’ Jowe Head Comes to Athens

Immortalized as a pioneer of post-punk, London-based musician and artist Jowe Head, born Stephen Bird, is known for his role in the late-‘70s band Swell Maps, as well as a decade-long career with Television Personalities. Guided by a strong DIY aesthetic, Swell Maps—which also included the late Nikki Sudden, a onetime Athens resident, and his brother Epic Soundtracks—topped UK independent charts with a sound that was equal parts punk rock and experimental psychedelia.

All the while, Head was developing as a visual artist, graduating from Manchester in 1980 with a degree in fine art but finding the need “to ‘un-learn’ a lot of the stuff that they were trying to cram into my brain, so that I could develop my own ideas and style,” he says. In addition to participating in various solo and group exhibitions, for the past 20 years the artist has also worked as a teacher at various youth clubs, community colleges and centers for people living with disabilities.

“Generally, all my paintings are dear to me; they are like children. I have a similar relationship to my songs and recordings,” says Head. “My favorites tend to have some kind of spiritual aspect. I have an interest in pagan imagery and symbolism, which gives me a sense of satisfaction. I have developed a deep feeling about my ancient British roots, so I like to express aspects of this, mixed with ideas from other cultures and from my imagination.”

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In addition to painting in oils and acrylics, Head experiments with drawing, printmaking, filmmaking, collage and found-object sculpture. Many of Head’s paintings incorporate the Eye of Horus, often combined with traditional European labyrinth designs. “Along with the art of Ancient Egypt, I’ve been influenced by the art of other cultures, such as the Mayans, Aztecs, the Inuits of Kwakiutl, the Buddhists and Hindus of Southeast Asia and the printmakers of Japan, such as Hokusai,” he says. 

A collection of Head’s paintings have made it across the pond to Athens for exhibitions currently on view at Kristen Ashley Artist Shop and Low Yo Yo Stuff through the end of the month. Originals and prints are available to purchase, and a closing reception with the artist will be held on Friday, Oct. 30 from 7–9 p.m. at KA Artist Shop.

Epitomizing the crossroads of his love for art and music, several of Head’s most recent recordings with his band The Demi-Monde fall under the umbrella of “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” (“Art lasts a long time, life is brief”), the working title of a larger project organized in collaboration with other songwriters. The band’s contributions include pieces about visual artists who have inspired Head—such as Joseph Beuys, William Blake, Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Cornell, Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters—and was released this month as Visionaries, a five-track EP, through Scottish DIY label Topplers.

“I see music as a vital part of a creative life which is entwined with visual arts,” he says. “The two senses work together so well… I often think about musical ideas when painting. Correspondingly, I often think of making music as ‘painting with sound.’”

Head always creates his own album artwork, and each copy of Visionaries was hand-printed with a linocut image of an eye. Demonstrating how his talents so often go hand-in-hand, the artist also frequently paints stage backdrops and creates animated videos for his music.

There are three separate performances to see Head and Flight Mode USA together in action: Wednesday, Oct. 28 at Hendershot’s Coffee Bar with French Exit; Thursday, Oct. 29 at Eyedrum in Atlanta with Omni and Cole Alexander of Black Lips; and Saturday, Oct. 31 at Flicker Theatre & Bar with Antlered Aunt Lord. The sets will range from early Swell Maps songs and tracks off of his solo albums to covers and works from Visionaries.

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Jowe Head

“I have managed to become part of a brilliant scene in London with various musicians, and my current band, Infernal Contraption, is amazing, but there are immense problems involved in taking a band on tour in the USA,” says Head, ”so I have managed to make a virtue out of being adaptable to the circumstances.”

Being adaptable on tour means finding kindred musicians to take the stage with him, a brave exercise in surrendering partial creative control in order to yield wildly diverse, unpredictable results. When performing in New York, Head is often joined by members of The Mad Scene, led by New Zealander Hamish Kilgour of The Clean, for a psychedelic sound. When joined by members of experimental rock band The Plums in Washington D.C., sets are more heavily influenced by noise and improvisation.

“It is a healthy thing to do, I believe. It is very rewarding to play with a variety of different groups of people, because various songs take on new leases on life played by different people that make the material grow and breathe,” he says. “I would never expect people to reproduce the records; that would be boring!”

For his performances in Athens, Head will be joined by Flight Mode USA’s Kenny Aguar and Leslie Grove, as well as Muuy Biien’s Joshua Evans, Robbie Rapp and Xander Witt. Additional backing musicians include John Fernandes, Rebecca Blankenship, Cary Whitley, Kate Mikulka, Deb Chasteen and Gabrielle Bischoff.

“I hope to make music with these great musicians in Georgia that is also difficult to categorize, but is seductive,” says Jowe. “It’s going to be an interesting palette of sounds: cello, violin, synthesizer, theremin, saxophones, clarinet, psychedelic guitars, voices. I’d like people to say, ‘I don’t know what the hell that was, but I really want some more!’”