Music Riot—Gilson Lavis Interview

Music Riot—Gilson Lavis Interview

Gilson Lavis artworks 22/06/17

Gilson scrollerBy an interesting series of coincidences, I found myself backstage at a Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes gig at The Forum in Kentish Town pointing the trusty MusicRiot microphone in the direction of Gilson Lavis. If you have any interest at all in popular music, you must have heard of Gilson in one of his two musical careers; he’s a great and highly respected drummer but I wasn’t there to talk about his music; we don’t do the obvious stuff like that at MusicRiot. I was there to talk to Gilson about art. There’s a reference at the end to Johnny stealing my thunder; he voicebombed the interview about a third of the way in to talk to Gilson about how much he loved Squeeze. 

Allan Hi Gilson. Some of us know you as the drummer in Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, The older ones know you as the drummer in Squeeze, but now you’ve got a new career as an artist, so how did that start?

Gilson Well, it started out of boredom really. I lead a pretty clean life these days; I don’t drink or any of the other stuff, thankfully and hanging about on the road or hanging about in hotel rooms, I’ve been doing it for about fifty years now, and it started to get a bit wearing, so I started to doodle and the doodles turned in to sketches and the sketches turned into paintings and now the paintings have turned into exhibitions. So it just sort of grew really and I’m in a very privileged position because with my position in the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra we get to play with some of the world’s best entertainers and performers and I see them close at hand and I try and paint them, and I think I can capture some of the real essence of the person.

Allan You had an art school background didn’t you? Did you continue to draw after you left art school and joined Squeeze?

Gilson No, I went straight into music, the driving force being sex; I wanted to pick up girls. It never really worked, but I got into the music business and I’m still doing that so the art was just put away really. I didn’t pick up a sketch pad or an easel or a paintbrush until about ten years ago, when I started again.

Allan Do you think you choose your subjects or do you think they choose you?

Gilson It’s a mixture of both really. As I said, I tend to sketch and paint people that I work with and sometimes I’ll get inspired by an image I see of somebody and I’ll paint from that, but really it’s working with these people that’s the driving force.

Allan You’re working mainly in acrylic on canvas aren’t you? Do you work in any other media?

Gilson Yeah, I do. I do ink sketches. That’s really what I do on the road, sketch in ink, but when I’m at home, I’ve got a large studio and my own gallery, so I paint at home and sketch on the road.

Allan In the creative process, do you have certain steps that you follow? I’m thinking of the preparation; I saw the Louis Armstrong sketch that you did and obviously you couldn’t do that from life so presumably you researched that online.

Gilson I do actually. A lot of the people I’ve painted or sketched, they’re too busy to sit for me; they’re not going to come round to my house and sit, so I do have to sketch from images. I try to take photographs when I’m working with them and sketch or paint from those, but it’s not always possible, because some of these people like Louis are no longer with us, I have to research them and I look for images that are inspiring and I tend to blend three or four images to get the look that I’m searching for, so it sort of grows.

Allan I’ve met quite a lot of musicians who have other artistic pursuits, painting, photography and so on. Do you think it’s a bit of a release valve?

Gilson I’m sure it is, it absolutely is. Though it’s a real privilege to work with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra; it’s high profile and we play big venues, but it is quite a restrictive environment. I’m there to make Jools sound good, I’m there to make the big band work, I’m not really cutting loose on what I want to do and the painting really allows me to be creative.

Allan So the band becomes the day job and your creative outlet is the painting.

Gilson But it’s a very enjoyable day job, I’m in a very privileged position.

Allan I’m fascinated by the paintings and the way they reflect the personalities of the people you’ve portrayed and it struck me that they’re not hyper-realistic, but they’re a long way from caricature, aren’t they? The one that particularly struck me, and I wonder how people will react to it, was Keith Moon, because he has a really serene look in that portrait.

Gilson Well, thank you. There are many, many images of Keith being crazy, that’s what he’s famous for, but I really wanted that sort of innocence of the young lad before he went on that crazy journey. I think that’s what I was aiming for, that innocent, lost look, not even knowing what’s going on. What went on of course was craziness and death in the long run.

Allan That was what immediately grabbed me about that particular image, the innocence. I understand that you’ve got a book of some of your images out as well.

Gilson Do you mean the one with the drummer portraits?

Allan That’s the one.

Gilson It was released two months ago actually. It’s eighteen portraits of drummers that have influenced me with a short snippet of a quote by each of them. I was asked many times, who influenced me as a drummer and eventually I thought “I know, I’ve got a good idea, what I’ll do is I’ll paint my influences and put them in a book” and it seems to have worked really well, it’s popular and it’s selling quite well, I’m pleased to say. It’s called “Drummers” by Gilson Lavis.

Allan I understand there’s an exhibition coming up in New York as well.

Gilson There is, yeah, at the Salomon Arts Gallery in Tribeca and it opens on the fourteenth of September. I’m really excited about it; I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few exhibitions in Great Britain but this’ll be the first in New York and I’m really excited by it and a bit nervous, to be honest, because we’re all deeply insecure, us painters, we’re all waiting to be laughed at.

Allan I think photographers are exactly the same. Your career must have had so many highlights, is there anything that really stands out in your memory as a real high point?

Gilson Yes, there is. It was when I was fortunate enough to get the phone call to play drums with Smokey Robinson on Later and on rhythm was Eric Clapton, Jools Holland on piano and Dave Swift on bass and me on drums. In fact there’s a little story about that, we were there, Eric, myself and Jools were there ready to rehearse with Smokey and he was flying in from America and it got to his allotted rehearsal time and we got the message he was a bit tired so he’ll be here in a couple of hours. We all downed tools and waited and then he didn’t show up, he was still a bit tired, and the show started to be recorded and we still hadn’t seen him and I’m sitting behind the drum kit and Eric’s looking a bit sort of worried. We knew the song, everybody know Smokey’s songs. The band before us was playing and thirty seconds before they finished, Smokey Robinson walked out on to the set and I’ve never seen anybody look more like a star than he did; he glistened. His skin was beautiful, his hair was just perfect, he had an incredibly dapper suit; he walked out and I counted the song in and we played it and he was just magnificent and then he turned round and nodded at Eric, he ignored me completely but I don’t mind and off he went and that was it, that was my experience of Smokey Robinson. But it was fantastic, it was a real buzz to play with one of my heroes, and there have been many.

Allan Johnny actually stole my thunder earlier because I was going to say at the end, did you know that Johnny’s a big fan of Squeeze and Jeff Kazee’s also a huge Squeeze fan.

Gilson I didn’t know. I had no idea.

And with that, we had to clear out of the Jukes’ dressing room as the band prepared for the show, but not before Gilson presented Johnny with an ink portrait of Mr Lyon himself. A couple of hours later, Gilson joined The Jukes on stage, taking the drum stool for “Key to the Highway”. And here’s the Keith Moon portrait:

Keith Moon Gilson portrait