why I’m scared of ceramic hobs

May 11, 2011 at 11:38 am | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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The other day two of my fields of interest coincided (fanzine culture and slavishly following Idwal Fisher) and led to me establishing contact with Dr. Adolf Steg the creator of Spon.  The good Doctor kindly sent me the whole five issue run of this comic/art/fanzine.  Contents include: heavily-laden, full-page graphics in brain-frying colours, hypnotising paintings and interviews with the artist Carlito Juanito, Steg himself and Simon Morris (/Harris) of Ceramic Hobs.  For further details see the write up over at Idwal or visit Dr. Steg’s website directly.  Suffice to say that these brief documents are essential reading for anyone interested in art with an ‘outsider feel’ (for want of a less culturally loaded term) or in the machinations of the Blackpool psychiatric underground.

Speaking of the latter, and of the aforementioned Simon Morris, another parcel followed from Dr. S this time containing a copy of the last Ceramic Hobs album ‘Oz Oz Alice’.  Steg described it as ‘fucking brilliant’ and I wholeheartedly agree.  In fact, it is a kind of masterpiece.  Despite being fired from the usual stylistic scattergun, the vision here is so unified and fleshed out that it is hard to pick highlights.  Maybe the balls-out punk of ‘Irish Jew’, or the startling power electronic demolition of 80s soft rockers Toto, or the whole 35 minute swirling nightmare of the title track.  Everything that is great about the Hobs is here perfected.  Buy it.

So what is up with the title of this post, eh?  Why am I scared of this band?  Well, it isn’t anything to do with ’em on a personal level, of course.  Simon has been charm personified on the few occasions I’ve met him face to face.  It isn’t the music either.  I own several hours of their recorded output and even released an album by them myself on oTo, the tape label offshoot of FFR.  I was delighted when they offered it to me: a bravado piece of editing stitching together innumerable cover versions from the Hobs archive.  When I’ve seen them live they have been consistently hilarious, unsettling, and hard rocking.  Each gig a memorable and strangely life affirming experience.   What I’m scared of, I guess, is what they reveal – or what they imply – about mental illness.

First some context.  Regular readers will know that I suffer with depression but, by and large, manage it fairly well.  I’ve never harmed myself or others because of it.  I’ve never been hospitalised or imprisoned.  It does limit my engagement with the world and, once every couple of years, I cease functioning, fall off the wall, and endure a miserable few months as healthcare professionals help me put humpty together again.  I’ve been on one medication after another for 14 years.

I suppose the silver lining to this condition is that I have learnt to value the good times.  I take a great deal of pleasure from life when I am well.  From the big stuff, like the love of my wife, to the small, like the texture of a good risotto, nothing goes unappreciated.  I do not bumble oblivious.  That’s it though.  For every other reason I hate this illness and if I could get rid of it by pressing a button you would have to prise my thumb off it.  There are no compensatory highs.  It does not afford me access to a mystical state that the merely sane could never comprehend.  It does not augment my life in any way.  Time spent ill is, for me, wasted – dead.  Black holes in an otherwise happy life of ant-like conformity.

This is not the attitude expressed by Ceramic Hobs.  Despite, or more likely because of, the fact that Simon’s ‘problems’ are orders of magnitude more serious than mine he has found a way of exploring it, augmenting it with drugs, alcohol and erudition and using it to inform both creative endeavour and a contrary, alternative worldview.  I am reminded of a comment by Jean Dubuffet, he of ‘Art Brut’, about the artist Aloïse Corbaz:

She cured herself by the process which consists in ceasing to fight against the illness and undertaking on the contrary to cultivate it, to make use of it, to wonder at it, to turn it into an exciting reason for living. … She had discovered the realm of the incoherent, she had come to realise the profusion of fruits that it can yield

Now we’re getting closer to my fears.  As I get nothing from my depression but stultifying misery, the idea of cultivating mental illness, or even ceding control to it, is terrifying to the point of being barely comprehensible to me.  In stark contrast, Simon is militantly committed to it.  In the Spon interview, he concludes an unflinching description of Oz Oz Alice’s gruelling creation thus:

…I can’t do anything as dangerous as that again if I am physically to survive.  But I do think that artists should be ready to put their work above all else in life and risk health and sanity for it, otherwise it is a fucking half-arsed hobby.

So what we get with Ceramic Hobs at their best, as on this album, is  a genuine product of madness.  And such is my worry that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ that I find this as frightening as it is awe-inspiring.  Simon acknowledges this, again from the Spon interview:

If it is anything it is a horror record, a deliberate bad trip which might impact on a listener in unexpected and unfortunate ways.

This band is not only ‘going there’ but doing so willingly and, whilst there, using some voodoo power to create this music for the rest of us.  My mind boggles – rather them than me.  Simon suggests that this might be the last Ceramic Hobs album.  I very much hope it isn’t but, if so, it would be a magnificent way to bow out.  Whilst waiting to hear what, if anything, comes next I’ll replay Oz Oz Alice and the rest of their catalogue and happily keep my own hobbies half-arsed.

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  1. i just finished a re-read of “clans of the alphane moon” the other day … The Hobs are Heebs, Manses and Pares … but Morris/Harris is a Skitze … you’re a Poly w/ Dep episodes, Rob

    can i get a job as a shrink now?


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