A portrait of the artist as a music fan

David Shrigley tells Chris Mugan how an album sleeve he designed finally became a record

There could be nothing more natural than meeting David Shrigley, famed for his rough, mordantly morbid cartoons, in a Tate Modern café, except we are not here to discuss his animations, photographs or drawings. Today’s subject is an album for which he has not played, sung, or written any music.

Yet somehow he is partly responsible for Worried Noodles, a compilation of songs inspired by his writing.

Two years ago, the Glasgow based artist came up with a book of pseudo-lyrics to accompany a project cooked up by hip German indie label Tomlab, which released an empty record sleeve he designed,also called Worried Noodles.“They were written as text without the intention of them being sung, just to fill a gap in the publication, to make it more sellable,” Shrigley deadpans in his flat Leicester accent. You may not expect David Shrigley to look anything like the deformed characters from his cartoons and animations, yet his soft speaking voice is still asurprise. Is this really the morbid fellow obsessed with insanity and the stuff of nightmares?

He continues: “I interviewed Alex [Kapranos] once and we talked about lyrics and how stupid they can look on the page, so it’s interesting to come back to it. They were songs because that’s what I called them, but I might as well have said they were poems. They’re really concrete poetry, because as they’re collaged together, it’s text as form.”

Somehow, the project has grown of its own accord, with musicians shoehorning the artist’s words into recognisable tunes and offering them up unbidden. An easy way to make a record, much like Shrigley’s own career. Without diamond encrusted skulls or pickled animals, he has stealthily won over a fair portion of both the art world and the general public. His films are shown at the influential Frieze Art Fair, books and postcards sell in their thousands and his most high-profile commission has been draped over Gateshead’s iconic Baltic arts centre. He has achieved all this with nervy draughtsmanship, a skewed view of the world and a dark sense of humour. Shrigley has released a spoken-word record that sets his disturbing monologues to an unsettling ambient soundscape, much like Chris Morris’s Blue Jam, but now a motley band of performers have composed arrangements for his words and sung them – or shouted or spoken them. Handy, really, as he is the first to admit he is not the most dynamic of creatives and seeks the least amount of effort for his work. “If I’m really honest, I couldn’t be bothered to be in a band. I’m just too lazy.” In his youth, Shrigley used to play in bands, but found art an easier path to pursue. “I never quite got my head around structuring songs, so all the bands I played in were just a lot of jamming, extended riffing and mumbling. There’s a bit of vanity involved in being in a band. I always wanted to be able to stand up and sing andplay guitar and I achieved it quite quickly, but didn’t feel a need to take it further. As soon as I had reached that high point, I started making money out of art. It’s quite hard rehearsing, with the drummer never turning up and if it’s your band you feel like you’re putting in a lot of effort without it being a really creative enterprise.”

From early drawings, sculptures and photographs, Shrigley’s frame of reference has expanded to include animation and music, so Worried Noodles is a natural next step for an artist who has worked in so many media. While Tomlab came up with the idea, it is telling that a similar thought had already struck him. A young singer songwriter, and BBC young folk awards finalist, James Chadwick, from the artist’s native east Midlands, had already sent in arrangements that Shrigley paid to be recorded properly. There has long been an intriguing empathy between him and independent-minded artists that he shrugs off. “I don’t see so much difference in terms of making an album and an exhibition, but I work in a lot of different media and it never seems too much of a shift to make a film rather than a spoken-word record.”

A huge music fan himself, Shrigley regularly jumps at the chance to work with musicians, though he admits he dived in at the deep end when animation firm Shynola suggested he work on the video for Blur’s “Good Song”. “I was quite intimidated. Damon Albarn came to the studio and I got really nervous. He didn’t even know who I was, but I made him a cup of coffee and spilt sugar on him. Now I’m less intimidated by working with people that are quite successful. I guess it’s just a social confidence thing. I like Bonnie “Prince” Billy because he’s always playing a part, he’s an actor as musician. It’s not really him. In a way, that’s what I do, Ihave a voice I speak with that’s notreally me, and I identify the same trait in a lot of musicians.”

Shrigley was happy for the label to take the lead on Worried Noodles, especially since they agreed not to edit too closely a project that has grown into a double CD. “I thought it would be hard to find anybody that had a name in the music world interested in such a daft subject. I thought it would just be a 12-inch, as a companion piece to the original work, but I guess they got carried away. It would have been impossible to do something, then not include it, so inevitably it had to be a giant thing. Anyway, I like to have everything in the mix. It didn’t matter who participated, because you couldn’t ever foresee what people would come up with and if I’d chosen everybody, it would have been a very singular line.”

While he left much of the hard work to his label, Shrigley does have his own contacts in the music world. He knew former Talking Heads mainman David Byrne was a fan and was friendly with fellow honorary Glaswegians Franz Ferdinand, though he did not dare contact one of his all-time heroes, The Fall’s Mark E Smith. “I think David tried to contact me when he was in Scotland, so I knew he was a bit of a banker. I would be afraid of having any contact with Mark E Smith, though, I’d rather admire him at a distance.”

From spending his teens listening to goth heroes Bauhaus, Shrigley’s tastes have grown ever more extreme to take in Japanese noise exponents Merzbow and Boredoms, alongside US noise band Lightning Bolt, possibly reflecting the dark themes that run through his work. “It’s a soundtrack to my life and my working day, especially the instrumental stuff or things in Japanese I can’t understand. I don’t need much excuse to buy records, I’m a bit compulsive that way. When I’ve got a day off I go and buy records and when I go out in the evening, it’s normally to see bands.”

An artist he has come to admire via Worried Noodles is R. Stevie Moore. Virtually unknown here, he enjoys a cult following in his native US along the lines of Daniel Johnston. He is an outsider artist that has put out 400 releases, originally on home-recorded cassettes. The maverick musician has recorded an entire album of Worried Noodles lyrics, Shrigley’s Field. Outsider is a description often used in the context of Shrigley’s work. Something he takes issue with, even though he has become a fan of Moore himself.

“He’s overproductive, produces himself and doesn’t edit, but he’s poor and I’m not. Formally, my work looks like outsider art, but the reality of my life is it’s very professional.” Professional, maybe, but no matter how many books he sells, Shrigley continues to strike a chord. Even if he doesn’t play guitar any more.

A vinyl edition of ‘Worried Noodles’ byVarious Artists is out on Tomlab at the end of January

'The lyrics were strangely moving'

The most high profile musician to contribute to Worried Noodles, David Byrne, had come across David Shrigley’s work before. “I think it was the photos, Leisure Centre, etc, Lost Pigeon, that I saw first.” And he became enamoured with the original lyric book. “I looked through Worried Noodles and laughed... but some of the lyrics seemed strangely moving, romantic and sincerely emotional even.”

Another long-time fan is English solo artist Scout Niblett. “I think I read an article about Mr Shrigley in an English newspaper years ago and the examples of his work made me feel like someone had just cleaned my face with a baby wipe and brought me back to a refreshing and inspired place.”

Franz Ferdinand (pictured), on the other hand, knew Shrigley from hanging out at gigs and exhibition openings in their shared home city, bassist Bob Young explains. “Glasgow’s a pretty small place and the music and art scenes mix socially a fair bit, so we have a lot of friends in common. We’d bump into him at art openings we’d be attending for the free booze and he’d be out at a lot of gigs.

"We like Shrigley’s work, we liked the idea and we liked a lot of the other bands involved.”