Damien Hirst: An emotional edge

He helped to finance The Hours' first album, and here Damien Hirst tells how he came to be involved with the band
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When I was growing up I was a huge Beatles fan and I also loved punk, The Clash and the Sex Pistols. If someone had asked me, when I was kid, what it was that I liked about the Beatles, I would probably have said that it was their massive range, diversity and working-class guts. Songs should match the range of emotions. You're happy one minute and sad the next and music should sound like that, but a lot of singers don't have that range.

These days a lot of bands feel as if they are going to come and go, but The Hours are different. They sound better than a lot of what is around. A band that feels as though it has a career with some staying power and a person who can really sing with feeling is fairly unusual. I would even go so far as to say that Narcissus Road is one of the most unbelievable first albums ever.

Like the Beatles, it has everything - punk, rock, ballads and soul. That's what you do as an artist, you take from everywhere and try to transform it into your own voice, your own thing. A lot of people worry about being "cool", but if you're trying to be cool, you never are. You just have to sing like you mean it or like you will die if you don't.

I'm a bit dark, so my favourite track is "Back When You Were Good". It's a nasty, intense, savage song, that says, "I wish I knew you back then, back when you were good". It's far from crying in your bedroom. It's a brutal song about getting over love.

I first met Antony Genn at Glastonbury about 10 years ago. He was dressed as George Best, in a football kit and holding a ball and a bottle of vodka. It was the year he went on stage naked with Elastica. He's from Sheffield and I'm from Leeds, so we've got the same sense of humour, the same roots and, at the time, we shared the same, some might say unhealthy interest in drugs. We became very close. When he was on tour with Elastica he would call me up and say that he was bored and that he couldn't wait to come home.

Then he joined up with my great friend who is no longer with us, Joe Strummer, and his band The Mescaleros. Antony produced the album Rock Art and the X-Ray Style for Joe and I designed the cover. It's a great album.

After that, Antony got into heroin in a very deep way. I tried to get him off it. I even took him to my house in Devon and he lived in a room for a while, much to the displeasure of my girlfriend. It didn't work out and things looked pretty bad. Then one day out of the blue he called me up and announced he was off heroin. We met up, suspiciously at first, and repaired the friendship. Later, I used him as my one-man rehab when I wanted to get off drugs.

I knew Martin Slattery as well - he was in The Mescaleros right up until the end; musically he's a genius. When Joe died suddenly I felt really sorry for the guys in the band. Everybody went off and did other things, but Martin got a little stuck and he had a wife and a baby to support. He and Antony drifted together and I ended up putting some money in. When they started to sound good I said I'd put them in the studio, pay for their first album and take them up to their first record deal. We all agreed it was a good idea. I'm no Andy Warhol - I didn't want to get involved like he did with the Velvet Underground - it was more about friendship, just helping my mates out.

I paid their basic needs for the first few years because Joe was a great friend and I thought that The Mescaleros were brilliant. I always knew that away from the heroin Ant was incredibly creative, and that they just needed some help to get back on their feet. I thought they'd get a band together, but I never thought they'd be as good as The Hours sound now. For a start, they didn't have a singer. Ant didn't sing. As far as I knew he had only ever done a little bit of backing vocals, so I thought he must have a terrible voice. When he told me he was going to sing I thought that that was going to be the end of my money, that it was going to be a complete disaster.

But then he played me something and I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. Singing is very difficult and he's pulled it off - with feeling. I suppose he learnt some great lessons from Joe Strummer, who was a fantastic singer. I always think that with any art, it's not about ability, it's about guts. The hardest thing is finding something you want to sing about. Once you've got that, the voice can come through that and it sounds amazing.

I've seen them play live three or four times. I've seen them terrible and nervous and I've seen them great. Ant's a really great front man - he is the kind of person who will stop a gig to tell people to stop being rude and listen to them.

They don't need my financial assistance any more. We still have a lot in common - I love the music and I love designing the artwork, so I will carry on doing that. I said to myself I wouldn't do any artwork or videos for anybody unless I liked the music. I've got an original poster of Jamie Reid's artwork for the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album. I've always loved the simplicity of it, so I was trying to do something like that here. Maybe I'm morbid, but when Ant told me they were calling themselves The Hours, I thought about time fading away and a painting of a skull I'd made.

For now, the band are dedicated and honest. They don't fear a struggle and they're aware that being great is about working hard as well. They remind me a lot of artists I went to college with - you can't just sit around in a studio writing songs and waiting to get discovered. They want to get out there and play to people. A big part of it is touring and building up a fanbase. And they're attracting fans, young and old. Bono really likes their music. They're no-nonsense and Ant is a great visionary. If they're lucky they'll appeal to everybody. I love their shit. The Hours are the dog's bollocks.

The Hours' album is reviewed on page 19. Damien Hirst was talking to Alice Jones