Interview #10: We Sink Ships

I’m not really sure where to start with We Sink Ships!  What exactly are they all about?  Well, I met Heidi Kuisma a number of years ago and we have become good friends ever since.  I am a big admirer of her wonderful photography and would recommend her work to anyone and everyone who can listen.  Neil Stephen Milton and I have become friends more recently.  Brought together by a love of similar music (he will be releasing my solo EP digitally on his soon to be relaunced Too Many Fireworks label) Neil is an equally wonderful photographer.  Together, Heidi and Neil both exhibit their own work and curate the work of others over on their website with regular online exhibitions.  From the very beginning they have also involved music in these exhibitions with Heidi regularly making mix tapes to go with photographs.  This desire to bring together music and photography has culminated with the pair getting their own podcast on Radio Magnetic.  It’s a weekly show with 4 weekly shows making up 1 monthly episode.  They have great taste in music and have introduced me to many wonderful artists.  I’m no photography expert but I know what I like and I love their work.  You should all check it out too here.  Though both incredibly busy people they have been great, taken time out of their busy schedules and answered some questions in this the 10th TSP interview.  Enjoy.
TSP:  We Sink Ships.  For those who don’t know anything about it, describe what you do, why you do it and what you are hoping to achieve through it?
NSM:  I think We Sink Ships is at its simplest described as a photographic collaboration between Heidi and me.  From the beginning we had plans for online exhibitions both created and curated by us.  We had plans for podcasts and we had plans to, in some way, accompany our photographs with music.  Photographically, we agreed we would work almost entirely in two photographic styles; pinhole and selective focus, I would shoot the former and Heidi the latter. Our first exhibitions featured our photos seperately and while it worked, it felt like two individual exhibitions combined.  The next time we experimented with a digital “double exposure” technique where we layer one photo on top of another and it just worked. That became our “thing”.  Around the same time, we created our website which has two galleries; one for curating exhibitions of other photographers and one for displaying our own.  Heidi has done an incredible job over the last year scouting for some wonderfully talented photographers to take part.

2010 has marked a new start for us.  We relaunched our website, a podcast (which we’ll discuss later, I’m sure) and kicked off a couple of new projects.  Every month we will alternate between curating an individual photographer’s exhibition and a group exhibition based on a theme.  The first solo exhibition is by our friend Alan Campbell.  The photography is primarily architectural and is very eyecatching.  At the same time, we launched our first exhibition of the new year which is the first in a larger body of work called Elements.  This exhibition, Water, is the first in which we’ve married the photographs we’ve created with a piece of music I’ve written and with a poem written by another friend, Rhys Baker of the band Wild Dogs in Winter.  I’m very proud of Water and I think it looks and sounds great.  We’ve another four to come of the same format over the course of the year so I’m excited to see how it grows.

Why do we do it and what are we trying to achieve?  I’m not really sure why we do it.  It’s a lot of fun and it’s a lot of work.  Heidi and I have both, I’m sure, sat down and thought “what HAVE I got myself into this time?”  It’s a cliché but it’s a real labour of love for us.  We both love photography and we love music and we’re not the kind of people who can just sit back and enjoy, we have to be involved for better or for worse.  My first love in photography is photojournalism and street photography and I saw a collaboration with Heidi as a way to look upon things with a more abstract eye and take photographs in a different way, thus the pinhole.  As far as I’m concerned, and I say this with sincerity, if people enjoy and appreciate what we do then I feel we’ve achieved.  There’s nothing better as a photographer or musician than someone telling you what you’ve done means something to them.  All that hard work is vindicated and forgotten.

HK:  Neil has done a good job at answering the first part of the question, so I don’t have anything to add to that. Why do I do this? There have been plenty of times when I have wanted to sleep or watch a film  rather than arrange photos on our website or contact photographers.  I’ll admit that.  But there has been more times when I have been really proud at what we have created. Each online exhibition, and now a podcast, is a small victory and an achievement and I enjoy that feeling. What am I hoping to achieve through We Sink Ships? I want to showcase other photographer’s work by creating hopefully interesting exhibitions that people enjoy looking at and I want to take photos and have a reason and focus for my photography. Most of all I just want to do something creative as it makes me happy.

TSP:  The photographs you take and the music you listen to seem to be inextricably linked, in my opinion.  There’s something simple, haunting and beautiful in many of your images which evoke the same emotions in me as much of the music that we share a love of.  Is this a conscious decision?  Do the photography and the music go hand in hand for you?

NSM:  It’s definitely a conscious decision.  I’m first and foremost a music fan above and beyond anything else I do. I come from a fairly musical family and was exposed to it at a very early age.  It sounds pretentious to say but everything I do is infused with that love for music.  From my early teens I was learning instruments by my early twenties I was in bands and had my own record label and even when I began photographing I’d shoot gigs and band promos whenever possible.

A huge influence on the beginning of We Sink Ships was Jónsi & Alex’ Riceboy Sleeps collaboration.  While a vastly different style, the fusing of visual art and music was something I wanted to do.  As an example of this, I think the first exhibition we did, Talvi/Winter, I shot all the photographs while walking around with the iPod feeding me what I would deem to be “winter music”.  It just seemed to fit.  I’ve never really thought too much about the emotional impact of our photographs before but it is nice to think that the emotions of the music we’re listening to at the time might come through a little in the final images.

HK:  No, it is not a conscious decision for me. I have never sat down and decided that I want my photos to evoke the same emotions as some of the music I listen to. Sure I’m influenced by things that surround me, and music is a huge part of my life, but I listen to a wide range of music from ambient, more experimental music to noisy stuff, and I can’t really see the influences of those rougher, louder bands in my photos. The biggest link between music and my photos is how music evokes emotions and those emotions influence whether I want to take photos or not. After saying all this, I do sometimes take photos that are specifically inspired and influenced by certain pieces of music.  Earlier last year, I took photos inspired by Found Songs, an album by Olafur Arnalds. He released a song a day for seven days and encouraged others to take photos or do art inspired by each song. Unfortunately none of my photos were picked for the album artwork, but I found the experience challenging and I was really happy I followed it thought. I also took album artwork photos for Wild Dogs In Winter. They sent me a couple of unfinished songs which worked as a brief for me. I like working that way so yes, in that way, photography and music go hand in hand for me sometimes.

TSP:  For those with a real interest in photography whose work would you recommend people check out?  Feel free to mention both well known and less well known and less well known artists? 

NSM:  Names that come to mind are Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Elliot Erwitt, David Alan Harvey and James Nachtwey – all remarkable photographers.  The surrealist photographers are an influence on me in other ways, especially the photos of Man Ray.  What about around Glasgow, well, other than Alan – mentioned above,  David Gillanders is a photographer whose photos had a massive effect on me when I was starting out.  Neale Smith is another local.  He’s been about on the scene for as long as I can remember and his gig photos are wonderful.  I’ve known Neil Thomas Douglas for a few years and I’m quite a big fan of his “A Stranger View” project.  He ties a disposable to a bench and leaves a note asking passers by to shoot a photo.  The collection looks great.  While not a photographer, Jenny Soep is an artist from Scotland that pitches up at gigs and rather than photographing the bands, she takes a pencil or some paints and creates some gorgeous images from the photo pit.  I’m a huge fan.

HK: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan and Gordon Chalmers from Glasgow take amazing portraits and street photos. Their styles are at opposite ends of the spectrum; Tommy takes vibrant and colourful images while Gordon’s photos are black and white, but both of them have a lot of emotion and humanity in their images. I’m not a huge fan of landscape photography but Alex Boyd’s Sonnets From Scotland series is great. Then there is Tommy Oshima from Japan who we are really lucky to have part of our exhibition in February. More well known photographers whose work I find interesting include Diane Arbus, Duane Michals, Michal Chelbin, Anton Corbijn, and Bill Brandt.
TSP:  What makes a good photographer?
NSM:  A good photographer?  I always find this so difficult to answer as a good photograph holds all sort of different criteria for different people.  For me, a good photograph is rich in form and geometry, I think this is why Cartier-Bresson is such a huge influence on me.  Mind you, what I think is a good photograph, a friend might think is nonsense and vice versa.  There’s a well-worn phrase in photography that what makes a good photograph is “f/8 and be there…” I’m going to go with that. 
HK:  I think a good photograph is a mixture of talent, passion, vision and luck. The photos I think are good change with my mood, how I’m feeling at the time. I see a lot of photos when I try to find photographers to take part in our exhibitions and the decision whether I like someone’s work or not takes me a split second. I suppose it is more of an
instinct rather than decision. I am not interested at who took the photo and what they used to take it. It is all about the end result to me and while the story how they achieved the image could be interesting, the qualifications and  megapixels are irrelevant. I have a friend who takes really interesting photos using a camera phone and a filter. It doesn’t make his photos any less powerful than photos taken with a Hasselblad. A good photo makes you feel something. It moves you.
TSP:  The podcast on Radio Magnetic, how did that come about and what is the show all about?
NSM:  We’d always planned to do a podcast from the first time Heidi and I hung out together but we had other things that took precedence so it was put on the back-burner for a while.  Fast forward a bit and Dougal from Radio Magnetic was sound-engineering at 2009’s Glasgow Twestival (A twitter “festival”) where I was DJing.  He really liked the DJ set and asked me to do a guest-mix on Magnetic.  Selfishly not content with that, over the course of a couple of weeks I pushed my luck and pitched the We Sink Ships radio podcasts to him instead.  He asked for a pilot, we recorded one, they liked it and here we are.

So each month we have 4 podcasts going out, one each Tuesday.  On the first, we will feature something that we love – it might be a band, a label, an artist, a gallery or a venue – then I get to play out with 45 minutes of electro-disco-wonk-pop.  The following Tuesday each month, we invite a guest DJ to record a set and before we play that out we give them a little introduction to the audience. Next, Heidi takes her turn to play some music but not before She and I discus a monthly Nick-Hornby-esque top 5.  The end of the month is a bit different; with the return of my record label, We Sink Ships is presenting the Too Many Fireworks podcast, which will feature music from the label, past and present, plus any of my latest ambient, minimalist or alternative-classical favourites.

HK: We’re both very excited about the podcasts and they seem to have been received well so far.  Theres some quite exciting stuff coming up in the next couple of months so well worth a listen.  We had podcasts on our list of things we want to do since beginning but like Neil says, they were put on a back burner for a while due to various reasons, one being lack of time. We didn’t want to do something that wasn’t properly planned and prepared. We did however want to do something involving music and started to upload mixtapes online in April 2008. It wasn’t until Neil had met with Radio Magnetic guys when we brought the idea of podcasts in the forefront of everything and spent some time focusing on WSS Radio. We wanted to do something slightly different from other Scottish podcasts and knew that it would have to be something involving creative things; music, photography and arts. We also wanted to focus on music and the guests.  It took us a few meetings and emails to get our format together but we are really happy with it.
TSP:  Music obviously plays a major role in both your lives.  Which artist are you most excited about in Scottish music at the present time?
NSM: I’m very excited by the Second Hand Marching Band at the moment.  As ramshackle as they can be, the songs they are writing together are lovely and the live experience is just a buzz.  There’s probably no other band in Scotland that could get me as excited right now as The Unwinding Hours.  Craig B and Iain Cook from Aereogramme are back with a new band and I couldn’t be happier.
HK:  This is a tough one so I’m going to say just one: Conquering Animal Sound. I saw them in December last year and it was mesmerising to watch them play. They had really beautiful sounds and songs and you could see that they had put a lot of work in them. I’m really looking forward to seeing them again at some point.
TSP:  And further afield than Scotland are there any artists you’d recommend people should check out?
NSM:  Far too many to be honest.  It’s probably not escaped many followers of We Sink Ships’ attention that I am a little obsessed with music from Iceland so there are plenty of bands I think folk should check out.  For A Minor Reflection, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ólafur Arnalds, Kira Kira, Amiina, my summer as a salvation soldier, Dynamo Fog, FM Belfast, Lost in Hildurness, Mammút, Parachutes, Pétur Ben, Retro Stefson – and that’s only scratching the surface…
Outside Iceland, I’ve been really into Nils Frahm lately and a pianist called Anna Rose Carter. Both make incredibly beautiful music.
HK:  Can I just copy Neil’s list? I’m a bit obsessed by a Finnish band called Joensuu 1685 at the moment. They blew my mind last week by playing a gig in Glasgow which was hypnotic, brutal and beautiful goose bumps inducing raw noise. Who else… Magyar Posse from Finland… Jeniferever, Ef and Immanu El from Sweden… Pneu from
TSP:  What projects do you have on in 2010?
NSM:  I’ve mentioned We Sink Ships’ ongoing projects earlier but it’s probably a good time to give my beneath us, the waves project a bit of a shout.  The short version of the story is that when We Sink Ships was born, the idea was to combine our photography with my music.  As we went on though, people were getting confused thinking that We Sink Ships was a band.  I decided to really concentrate on the music, giving the project its own name.  Beneath us, the waves is part minimalist classical music and part experimental ambient soundscape-y-ness.  Since I began, it’s gained more acclaim than, I think, anything else I’ve done musically which, for something that was started as a side-project to WSS was quite a surprise.  I’m very proud of it.  Though I’m now living in Warsaw in Poland I will be coming back to Scotland in April to do a wee mini-tour accompanied by a string quartet and I’m very excited about that.  Something, completely unexpected came from my experimenting with beneath us, the waves in that several bands/artists have now got in touch recently asking me to collaborate or to score strings for them.  It took me by surprise, I can tell you but I’m delighted to be doing something I really enjoy.
HK:  WSS related plans for 2010 include 12 curated exhibitions, seven exhibitions which have photos by Neil and I, and 12 podcast episodes which all have three parts. It’ll be busy and exciting year for WSS, that’s for sure. WSS has taken so much of my time that I haven’t really had a chance to think what I want to do this year with any personal projects but I definitely want to do something with the photos I’ve been taking as part of ‘One Hundred Days To Make Me A Better Person’ which finishes in March and I’m really looking forward to hearing all the music that has been written inspired by photos I took last year. My photos will also be used on a couple of albums so looking forward to seeing them.
TSP:  How are you planning to co-ordinate your work with Neil now based in Poland permanently?
NSM:  The internet is a clever place.  It has never really worried me that we might not continue when I’m here.  Heidi and I “talk” almost every day on gmail chat and we’ll soon have a pretty professional “Skype” set up for recording the podcasts after March’s last show.  We’ll always get together when I’m back in Scotland for some “summat” talks and we’ll just keep plugging away.  If anything, I’m hoping my being here – once I’ve settled in and got the lay of the land – will allow us to “open up another front” over here and start preaching the We Sink Ships gospel to the Poles.
HK:  Like Neil says, it is not a problem. Due to the Internet and how it allows us to be in contact with other people via email, skype and chats, it is not necessary for people to be in the same physical location anymore in order to work together on a project. To be honest, most of our discussions were done online even before Neil moved to Poland because we both have busy lives and we lived on opposite ends of Glasgow, so his move hasn’t really made a huge difference, now we are on opposite ends of Europe, that’s all. Sure, nothing can beat a face-to-face conversation, but we are now fully embracing the challenge of online communication and also welcoming all the opportunities being in different countries will bring. We’ve also divided WSS workload a little. In the beginning we both tried to do everything but soon realised it just wasn’t working. Now I deal with galleries, Neil with podcasts and we keep each other up to date on everything.
TSP:  Finally, if you could choose 1 band to soundtrack life and 1 photographer to document it, whou would they be and why?
NSM:  There’s only one band for me, Sigur rós.  It’s just the most beautiful music and my all time favourite band.  They seem to soundtrack all the important moments in my life.  I know it’s corny but the day their Takk… album was released – for instance – my girlfriend and I lay in front of the fire and listened to it for the first time together and I just knew I wanted to be with her for life.  As for the photographer, I’m not sure if I’d have wanted him to document my life as I think he’d have just got bored but I would have loved to have had my portrait photographed by Cartier-Bresson.
HK:  I thought about this a long time as at first I thought that it would be impossible for a band to have such a wide range of songs that they could be the soundtrack for everything I’ve lived through and felt so far in my life, both happy and more negative times. There is one band that could possibly fit the bill though, and it is Explosions In The Sky. They are instrumental, so there aren’t any lyrics to define the song too much, and they can be quiet and beautiful but also loud and raw. Only problem with using them to soundtrack my life is that they have been used by every other film and advert already. As for the photographer, I really don’t know. Can I just have different people at different times as it would result in a wide range of styles that would reflect the stages of my life, but would also make my life look more interesting? That sounds good to me.

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