Bill Drummond: Agent provocateur

He made a fortune in the pop charts, then set fire to £1m. He dedicated himself to art, but went to extraordinary lengths to hijack the Turner Prize. Bill Drummond has made a career out of turning celebrity on its head. Declan O'Neill tracked him down
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The Independent Online

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but Drummond is a natural subversive. He wants to hear music "that makes me feel something I've not felt before" and he says he will spend today trying to imagine "what music I had never heard before would sound like. I want to hear something fresh and different, that makes me feel emotions I didn't know I had instead of the emotions I've felt a thousand times before."

It's not the first time Drummond has questioned his relationship to the culture industry. The pop-pranksters KLF - Drummond and his collaborator, Jimmy Cauty - were one of Britain's biggest-selling acts for a few years before they exited the business in 1992, deleting their entire back catalogue and machine-gunning the audience at that year's Brits with blank bullets. A year later they launched The K Foundation with full-page ads demanding "Abandon All Art Now".

Their first act as artist-provocateurs was to award £40,000 to that year's Turner Prize winner, Rachel Whiteread, as the worst artist of the year. Famously, their final act was to burn £1m on the Isle of Jura in August 1994.

"Ever since I can remember, I've had the urge to do things that didn't make much sense to my friends, family and those I work with," Drummond told me. "As an adult I've tried to channel this urge to do things, and my inability to resist the urge, into a way of life, a job, a justification for being alive."

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Drummond admires the ability to " hold an audience and communicate your ideas with just the power of your words, without even a microphone". At 17, an aptitude test fused two of the future Timelord's interests, music and "making things", and recommended a career as an instrument-maker. In 1970, he began an art foundation course in Corby, achieving a B at A-level and tasting fame when the local paper covered his end-of-year show, a reconstruction of his entire bedroom (it's not known whether Tracey Emin paid a visit).

He went on to study Fine Art at Liverpool School of Art and Design, but found the course "couldn't compete with what was going on in the outside world", and he left to pursue a variety of jobs, in psychiatric hospitals, steel plants, building sites and deep-sea trawlers.

By 1976, though, he was designing and building sets at Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre. Campbell, he says, "taught me to entertain the possibility of everything", and in 1977 he formed the band Big In Japan, alongside Holly Johnson, later of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. A fixture on Liverpool's post-punk scene, in 1978 he founded Zoo Records, who nurtured the nascent Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. A& R duties followed at a major label, but then he met Cauty and formed The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, aka The JAMS, The KLF and The Timelords.

Now he's in the business of selling art - but not how most dealers sell art. For £1 he will flog you a piece of the Richard Long photograph, "A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind", which he cut into 20,000 squares after falling out of love with it, while for £25 you will get a tin of Drummond's International Grey paint, with the exhortation to do what it says on the tin and paint over anything you find "morally or aesthetically offensive". Until recently he was prepared, for £10,000, to have sexual intercourse with you and give you a signed testimonial.

At 52, Drummond still believes in what he calls "the magic of art" and works flat out on a variety of online projects. Openmanifesto.com serves as a forum for discussing the purpose and significance of art, while on mydeath.net you can make very precise arrangements for your funeral. On youwhores.com, anyone can advertise what they're willing to do and the price they're willing to do it for. Somebody will give your Jack Russell a good kicking for a small fee, for example, while £10 will seal the voices in your head into a box. Every girl needs a gay best friend, and £30 a week will get you one in Leeds, while another woman offers psychotic ex-girlfriend services.

Drummond lives in Norwich now, but his second home is a rock star folly with a difference. He bought the Curfew Tower in the village of Cushendall in County Antrim in 1993 when he was flush from pop stardom. The tower, built by a local landowner, John Turnly, in the early 19th century, sits at the village crossroads. Drummond had intended it as a retreat for himself and his writing partner, Mark Manning, the founder and lead singer of Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction. They planned to write up their record of a journey they undertook to the North Pole to burn an effigy of Elvis - in a huge reindeer-skinned book that could only be read by visitors to the tower. Then Penguin made them a silly offer, and the book was published as Bad Wisdom.

Drummond then converted the tower into an artists' residence, with the condition that anyone who stays there must produce a piece of work relating to the environment. Locals cast their ballots for a yearly prize, The Curfew Tower Award, and this year's winner was the photographer Peter Richards, who took an extraordinary picture of the Tower by converting its wheelie bin into a pinhole camera.

Drummond didn't want call the award The Turnly Prize. "I don't like irony or that sort of play on words that sub-editors like to come up with for headlines," he says, "especially given my own history with certain high-profile art prizes. That said, and I know it sounds a bit patronising, calling it the Turnly Prize does go down well with the locals and the local media."

The disaffected youth of the village tend to hang round the Tower, which he's quite happy about. "I'm interested in the whole process of people going there who have never experienced this kind of place, maybe thinking this is some kind of countryside retreat," he says. "Instead they are confronted by the teenagers of Cushendall - who are more extreme and more in your face than any inner-city kids. I'm not trying to give the artist a hard time, but what they get out of that is far more important than what they leave behind on the wall. That's irrelevant, almost."

Drummond himself has produced 30-odd paintings over the past couple of years. They are all 75in by 53in, and use only the primary colours plus black and white. The content is text, all in the same font, Trade Gothic Bold Condensed. "I like restrictions," he says, "they bring out - if not my best - I suppose they make me more focused."

The day I visited his workshop on an industrial estate outside Norwich, he was working on a canvas for No Music Day. But this should not be seen as a publicity campaign. "I would rather do it and nobody knew about it," he says, "than it be seen as a shoddy bit of publicity-seeking shenanigans." I look through his poster racks, editions of 100 with titles like I Have, I Will, To Make Money, Unlimited Editions and Obviously There Is Nothing. Maybe it's his age, I suggest, that is making him lose interest in music?

"I always had this resentment to music," he says, "because it seemed to take over your life, every area. Now I'm more into doing positive things like baking cakes and giving them to total strangers than wanting to instigate smashing things up. I am now consciously trying not to destroy art. When I have done so in the past, it says more about the bad things in me than the things in bad art.

"I feel better about what I do now than at any point in the past. I feel more sure about it, though it can never have the impact that certain things in the past had. It's never been a straightforward career path, I feel closer to what I should be doing - and I feel very lucky, too." Closer to what, Drummond won't reveal. "I've always been eager to pose questions, never very good with coming up with answers." He does, though, know where art stands in the wider world.

"During the lifetime of an artist, what they do is more than likely to be considered trivial compared to proper jobs," he says. "Even if the artist is fashionable and appreciated by millions, it pales compared to someone who can broker a deal between warring nations, or even a nurse. But in the broad sense, art is what's left behind, whether it's Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Goldie Looking Chain."

As for his own position in art's food chain, he is equally realistic. " For every one great artist who leaves something behind, there have to be a few thousand others all desperately having a go, for great art to float to the top of. The only thing that I know for certain is that my art can be part of the messy pool - for the great stuff to float to the top of."

He picks up an axe and swings it round. I take it as my cue to leave. He may no longer be the great destroyer, but Bill Drummond is still in the business of provocation.

Maverick stunts

1986 Having been the manager of Julian Cope's group The Teardrop Explodes, Drummond records a solo album, The Man, containing the track "Julian Cope is Dead".

1992 The KLF announce their retirement by machine-gunning that year's Brit Awards audience with blanks, causing the conductor Georg Solti to flee in terror.

1993 Alongside the £20,000 Turner Prize, The KLF offer the winner Rachel Whiteread £40,000 as the worst artist of the year.

1994 The K Foundation makes the biggest cash withdrawal in British banking history, £1m, and burns it. A film, Watch The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, tours the UK. The final screening is at a car park off London's Brick Lane.

1995 The K Foundation sign a contract with the artist Marc J Hawker, agreeing to a 23-year moratorium on all K Foundation activities. The contract is signed on the bonnet of a rented car which they then push over the edge of a cliff at Cape Wrath.

1995 With 6,250 cans of Tennent's Super, Drummond, Cauty and their collaborator Gimpo drive around London on Christmas Eve distributing alcohol to street-drinkers and the homeless.

1997 The KLF reform for a show (1997 - "What the Fuck's Going On?" ) at the Barbican where they perform their single "Fuck The Millennium".

1999 Drummond and Cauty announce their intention to destroy Stonehenge with their JCBs, as a "gift to the nation".

2002 Drummond puts up 100 posters in Liverpool during the Biennial art fair, offering to have sex with anyone for £10,000. There are no takers.

Visit www.nomusicday.com

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