Josh Bayer lives in Harlem and has worked as a graphic novelist and fine artist for over twenty years. He is the creator of Theth, Raw Power, Tomorrow Forever, Black Star, RM, Mr. Incompleto, Abysmalation, and Unended. A punk rock acolyte, Josh has also collaborated or done illustrations for bands and musicians such as Naked Raygun, Integrity, and Riley Gale of Power Trip.
Since 2007 he has been teaching professionally at schools all over New York.
My relationship with Josh formally began before I was ever exposed to his work. It was very much an “I know a guy” type of circumstance: Aaron Lange, head of Stone Church Press, suggested that Josh would be an ideal fit to illustrate my long poem, Fish Turn Colors Then Break In My Hands, that they would publish in zine/comic format.
Aaron showed me samples of Josh’s work and, immediately, it challenged my preconceptions about what comic art should look like or accomplish.
Josh and I worked pretty closely On Fish…, like old friends, with regard to what the illustrations should look like; both on a content and conceptual level. The preliminary drafts for the pieces alone made me cry, in disbelief that my own work could inspire images so singularly beautiful.
We talk more about Fish, The Gun Club, Jeffrey Lee Pierce; and broader, but not-so-tangentially related stuff below…
At what moment did you realize that The Gun Club was a band that was unlike other bands you were listening to at the time?
It was, I think, immediately. A friend gave me a cassette of Fire of Love but I really became into them when I heard The Las Vegas Story. I remember I had this job as a dishwasher I hated, and listening to “Secret Fires” while doing a shift and just being absorbed by it and thinking how beautiful it was in contrast to what a hopeless and devaluing atmosphere was created by the job .
Where, in your view, does Jeffrey Lee Pierce fit in the tradition of American popular songwriting—and, by extension, poetry?
That’s a hard one, I’m more of a listener than an academic expert in either of those areas, poetry or the canon of music history. I can speak to how Jeffrey fit into punk and LA first wave punk more than anything of greater scope.
As of writing these questions, the fourth volume of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions called The Task has Overwhelmed Us is set to be released in September, with (another) duet between Nick Cave and Debbie Harry released as a single, this time being “On the Other Side”.
Has Jeffrey, in other ways, finally gotten due recognition nearly 30 years after his death?
Fuck no. Not at all even remotely.
He’s remembered far more than other punk and alternative singers and far more than most of us will be, though. So that’s something, but hard-core fans have an obligation to continue to spread the word to people, that’s their legacy and I hope it grows.
JLP’s music should be as ubiquitous as Joy Division.
A while back you told me that you had lived in LA for a bit and you nearly caught a Gun Club tribute show mere weeks after the death of Jeffrey Lee Pierce but weren’t able to attend.
What other prominent memories do you have of LA?
Lots of memories of LA, including of constantly meeting people who didn’t know anything about the city’s punk musical legacy. I saw shows at Hong Kong Cafe, at the Anti Club, at The Whiskey – obviously, no one seemed to realize that in Columbus where I came from, these were places that were bigger than life. In 1997 or what have you, they were just mostly unpopular, indifferently-run clubs.
The events are a little different than you recall, though; I missed seeing a big show with The Gun Club on the bill the year he died. The Muffs played and I knew Ron from The Muffs a little, he told me that Jeffrey was really imbalanced at the show and the Muffs singer was not having it and ended up verbally laying into him because I think he laid his hands on her or something, like he tried to crawl up her leg when she was playing like he was Lux Interior or something and she was like what the fuck are you doing?
Then she made fun of the duster and headband he had on; saying he looked like some bad Sam Kinison reject. Maybe there’s a lesson in there, that there’s a thin line between being Lux Interior and Sam Kinison.
I love Jeffrey but it does sound like he could behave badly and be wildly unpredictable.
Then a few years later, maybe even like 2002, I saw a Gun Club tribute Keith Morris had organized. It was cool, I was hyped as fuck to see it, but everyone wanted to do stuff off Fire of Love and Miami. Great albums, but it sort of showed a shallow relationship to the band’s catalogue, even though many of the performers had history with JLP.
I would have loved to have seen someone do “Keys to the Kingdom” or “My Dreams” instead of 15 different people do “She’s like Heroin to Me” or “Fire of Love” or “Preaching the Blues”. Those songs absolutely are great but it’s almost like only knowing “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways.
LA’s always been a hotbed for musicians that are outliers, doing what they do on their own terms, in any style anyone can think of. What other LA artists do you admire that ought to be on more peoples’ radar?
Ed Bunker, especially his books Little Boy Blue as well as Education of a Felon.
Hm, who else?
I think there’s quite a few visual artists and filmmakers but most of them do have an audience.
You’ve done art for bands before, namely Integrity and Naked Raygun (RIP Pierre Kezdy).
With those projects, I could well imagine the main point of reference for how the final draft of the art should look rested in the music for the release itself.
For Fish Turn Colors Then Break in My Hands, of course, the main point of reference was the poem.
Was the frame of mind that went into your work for those artists more convergent or divergent from when you were doing the illustrations for Fish?
Yeah it was a unique experience, it reminded me of illustrating a book called Never Say Goodbye that I did years ago for Yeti Publishing for a writer named Quentin Rowan. They never paid me, but I still was into doing it and was honoured to work first-hand with the author, Quentin.
And I loved his writing, as I love the writing in this book.
Getting approval one-on-one with the creator made those two projects similar.
With Naked Raygun they were very hands-off, and with Integrity, same thing. they trusted me, not a lot of notes.
Before I even saw any pieces by you, Aaron from Stone Church Press described your work to me as, “a messier version of William Blake”. Blake’s presence in my life has always been a strange one. At Ohio University, where I went to school for a while at least, there was an arts faculty member who went by Æthelred that founded a literal church called Golgonooza and it was centered around Blake’s personal theology. They even did fucking baptisms!
Æthelred retired then died before I could either chat with him or be baptized in Golgonooza.
Later, Blake became the first poet who imbued me with a divine presence, which is interesting because I had read Dante well before then.
Please describe your history with William Blake.
Again, I’m a novice and just have spent majority of my life admiring him from a distance, and for some reason continuously conflating his name with Francis Bacon’s.
He is one of those people who I’d say defunded a certain bedrock my artistic principles are based on; one of finding your own vocabulary and of bringing monsters to life.
That’s very kind of Aaron to say.
Lately, I’ve been thinking my stuff I did for this project is sort of adjacent to Mike Kelly except I tend to do more fussy detail. I seem to vacillate heavily towards certain types of lines, thick, thin, scribbly etc, and it morphs as I work on a project.
Sometimes what I do is largely out of my control or intent.
Upon seeing more of your work, not just what was done for Fish but also your graphic novel Theth: Tomorrow Forever – which is, I think, something every young aesthete in America and elsewhere ought to read -some other things that it reminded me of were the more busy and maximalist paintings of Francisco Goya, the extremely strange pen-and-ink renditions of the Austrian artist Alfred Kubin (whose only novel, The Other Side, is currently my favorite work of fantastic fiction), and the etchings of Viennese Actionist focal point Günter Brus.
They are to me less messy, as Aaron put it, and more extreme.
How wholly would you accept that label applied to your work?
What other artists or isolated works informed the illustrations for Fish in particular?
When Aaron showed me the piece he most wanted the book to be like it really helped me get an overall foundation of how to hit it, I often am trying to be other artists who interest me and who I want to be, Dr. Seuss, Harold Gray, Geof Darrow. When Aaron described the approach he wanted it helped me not get too schizophrenic and over-complicated and FOMO driven.
Thank you for those comparisons, I hope the work continues to have those qualities for you. I love Goya, and think about him often for lots of different reasons. He’s another person who lives rent-free in my head.
One of the cool things about teaching is I get to re-engage with artists of the past, and keep on cycling through them and revisiting them. Goya is a reg part of that rotation.
I’m looking at Kubin now, he seems like the type of person people are trying to emulate with AI, though AI is an anathema to me.
I love how these artists all achieved a sort of immortality. They’re so good, they still have a role to play even after they’re dead. A legacy that lives on. I’d say that’s the greatest accomplishment an artist can hope for.
Really, in a way, architects leave behind an even more potent legacy, but everything we do or say or listen to is significant.
You can’t underestimate the value of The Gun Club. Today, “Secret Fires” and “My Dreams” bring me as much hope as they did when I was still a teenager with a shit job.
- ‘Fish Turn Colors Then Break in my Hands’ – Link to Buy ‘Fish Turn Colours’, via Stone Church Press
- Josh Bayer – Website
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- Josh Bayer – Online Store
- Josh Bayer – GoodReads Entry
- Colby Smith – Instagram
- Colby Smith – Facebook (Personal)
- Colby Smith – GoodReads Entry
- Colby Smith – The Aither Contributor Page