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Film: “Argylle”Director: Matthew VaughnCast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, John Cena, Dua Lipa, Bryan Cranston, Sofia Boutella, Ariana DeBose, Catherine O’Hara, Samuel L. Jackson
No matter what, British director Matthew Vaughn is having a good time making movies. Besides being married to former supermodel Claudia Schiffer, he’s just seen his mega-wacky, big-budget comic spy thriller, “Argylle,” get released. It’s appeared in theaters through Universal and soon will find its way online through Apple Original Films.
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard [the “Jurassic World” franchise] as author Elly Conway and Oscar-winning actor Sam Rockwell as agent Aidan, the film folds fictional characters created by the writer into a real-world scenario led by a battalion of killer arch-spies chasing them.
The plots of Elly’s fictional books — centered on the adventures of secret agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) and his efforts to unravel a global spy syndicate — prompt a real-life spy organization to try killing Elly through deadly covert actions. That’s when the quiet life of evenings at home with her cat Alfie ends. Though the evil agency is rebuffed by Aidan, the two fall into rabbit holes of wild train rides and a global mission in order to pass on illicit secrets to a CIA underboss (Samuel L. Jackson) who can save the day.
Now this isn't the 52-year-old creator's first rodeo. He's established quite a list of credits, some by adding to established franchises such as the “X-Men” or creating new ones such as "Kick-Ass" and "Kingsman." But whatever Vaughn does, he does it with a certain flash and panache.
This Q&A is based on a discussion held at New York Comic Con last October. On stage in the Javits Center, subtitles may be needed for this Brit.
Q: Meet the man who directed all these incredible movies: "Layer Cake," "Stardust," "Kick-Ass," "X-Men: First Class," "Kingsman: The Secret Service," "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" and now, "Argylle."
Matthew Vaughn: With “Snatch,” they wanted subtitles. I'm not joking. Seriously, the studio didn't understand that Brad Pitt was meant to not be understood at all.
Q: Anyway, you fought the good fight and won. That was back in the days when you were a producer alongside Guy Ritchie. Were you always keeping an eye on directing? Did you always plan to direct ultimately?
Matthew Vaughn: Directors can be a pain in the arse and are incredibly egotistical. As a producer, it was exhausting and I thought it couldn't be that hard. So I gave it a go.
Q: Fair enough. That led you to “Layer Cake.” Was it always the intention that you direct it?
Matthew Vaughn: Guy Ritchie was meant to direct “Layer Cake” and decided not to. So [J. J. Connolly], the author of the book, said, “Why don't you have a go?” Then my wife [Claudia Schiffer] –thank God for her – said, “You really should have a go.” Thank God I did because I feel like I'm playing and am going to get caught out very soon. But so far, so good.
Q: Here's the terrifying thing. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of “Layer Cake.”
Matthew Vaughn: Yeah, it's terrifying getting old.
Q: What was that experience on Layer Cake” switching from producing to directing?
Matthew Vaughn: Terrifying. On the first day, I made a big mistake. I looked through the camera and saw Daniel Craig and casually went, “My God, this is the first time I've ever done this, looking through a film camera.” I went back down and all I saw was horror on Daniel's face. But we got through it. It’s ultimately filmmaking. I don't want to sound like I'm belittling it, but at the end of the day it's a camera, a script and actors. If you do it and have passion about telling a story, it sort of looks after you.
Q: What were the films that got you into filmmaking in the first place?
Matthew Vaughn: I could list them -- talk about getting old. But the first three films in the cinema -- I was like, “Oh shit, I've got to continue watching. They were “Star Wars,” “Superman” and "Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I saw them in the cinema not knowing what any of them going to be!
Q: “Layer Cake” is an amazing film, but it's also a bit of an outlier on your directorial CV. After that, you started moving into geek cinema, pursuing fantasy with “Stardust.” And before that, you made a couple of comic book movies: “X-Men: First Class” -- and "Kick-Ass."
Matthew Vaughn: I basically directed [“X-Men: First Class”], but the good stuff didn't make the cut. It was bizarre because I went from “Layer Cake,” a tiny £3 million movie and suddenly Hollywood was calling up saying, “Would you like to make an X-Men movie?” I was like, “Yes.” I thought “X2” was a masterpiece. I was worried [about] stepping into Bryan Singer’s shoes. But it was a dream come true and I storyboarded the movie.
The movie ended up not being what I was going to make. I was naive and used to working in the way I produce films. “Here's a budget, here's a schedule, stick to it.” Hollywood doesn't work that way at all. They go, “Here's a budget, here's the schedule. We pretend we're going to do it and then we make it all up as we go along.” I didn't know that back then. I was naïve. I was given the speech, “You'll never work in this town again.” Yeah, and I sort of believed in that. If that’s not how Hollywood works, then I didn’t want “Stardust” to go that way. I read the book and met Neil Gaiman [its author]. I’d rather do it [my way] so I did that; [I didn’t want to disappoint Neil].
Q: You ended up making a very successful “X-Men” movie. But what’s amazing is that, by and large, you've worked independently. You finance your movies yourself, as well. Is that something that developed over time?Matthew Vaughn: Well, no, it was a habit that half came out of [producing] “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” this little movie that we made here. We knew nothing and were sort of naive, but in a good way of not realizing anything that should scare us. We made it with £900,000 which we begged, borrowed and literally stole to get the film made, but it made money. Then you get a reputation that you can make people money.
What I learned is that when you raise money, if somebody says, “Well, if it's so good, why are you not putting in?” I was like, “Yeah, fair enough.” With “Kick-Ass,” I literally bet the house. When we broke [out] "Kick-Ass," nobody in Hollywood wanted to make it so I took out a mortgage on the house and financed the movie. It was scary because we couldn't get any distribution. Then, when it was finished my agent at the time said, “It's not really intelligent.” If everybody in Hollywood says, “No, don't make it,” it doesn't mean they're not going to buy it -- and he was right.
They all said no. Well, they [were then] showed clips of the movie after “Avatar.” I really thought I was screwed but the fans went so crazy, Hollywood decided that maybe there was something in there that the fans might like. Then they went for it.
Q: Was "Kick-Ass" a reaction, in a way, to the trend of comic book movies?
Matthew Vaughn: It was Mark Millar [the graphic story creator of "Kick-Ass."] He came to the premiere of "Stardust" and he pitched "Kick-Ass" to me over a martini. I’ll never forget it. He said, I've written a comic about a superhero with no powers. I thought, "Oh wow, that sounds cool." And then, off we went and did it and I like the story.
Q: It was the first time that you properly harnessed your action leanings. There's some great action sequences. Everything that Hit Girl [Chloë Grace Moretz] does was pretty amazing. Was that a great opportunity for you to prove what you could do, as well?
Matthew Vaughn: I had no idea, but I was a big Jackie Chan fan. I was thinking action would be very gritty and thought, "No, let's do something a little bit more fun." It's not easy but it's rewarding.
Q: That movie has got this really glorious, punky, rebellious attitude. Was that something that was a part of you that wanted to express?
Matthew Vaughn: That wasn't in the script to be very clear. It wasn't in the comic. But it wasn't an ad-lib either. Then little Chloe, read the comic at the time, and her mother came up and said, "Can we do one more take? She wants to try something?" Oh, no, but it happened. Thank God And it was in focus, one take.
Q: One take. Amazing. With Chloe Moretz, and Aaron Taylor Johnson in that film, as well. Daniel Craig and Sienna Miller are in "Layer Cake;" Charlie Cox is in "Stardust" and Taron Egerton is in pretty much everything you've done. You have this incredible eye for talent, for responding to someone just as they're about to go into the stratosphere. Tom Hardy's in “X-Men: First Class.” Where does that come from?
Matthew Vaughn: I just use my eyes when an actor comes in and starts reading the lines. You forget that they're auditioning, you just watch. Then I cast, simple as that. There's a lot of actors that can’t act. They come in and then you say, "Next" and then someone brilliant comes in and you say, "You got the job."
Q: Sometimes that happens and sometimes it takes a while for them to come around again. Take Bryce Dallas Howard. We’ll talk about "Argylle" but Bryce Dallas Howard is in "Argylle" and she was nearly in "Stardust." Is that right?
Matthew Vaughn: Bryce was the first actress to audition for "Stardust." She did the best audition. I wanted to cast her immediately but the studio said "No, she's not famous enough. She's never going to pop." Then a month later, she was cast in "Spider-Man 3.” But Bryce is a statement! When an actor is great, I appreciate the art, [though] I have no interest in being an acting coach. I just like to watch great actors do their stuff and just tweak it a little bit.
Q: Moving on from "Kick-Ass" to "X-Men: First Class." How did that come about?
Matthew Vaughn: Well, the man who said you’ll never work in this town again, watched "Kick-Ass" and, to his credit, rang me up and said, “You know what, I didn't mean it when I said that. What I meant was that you will work in this town again.” Yeah, but one of the main reasons that I actually quit “X-Men 3” — this is a true story and I don't care if I'm not meant to say it — [is that] Hollywood is really political and odd. I went into one of the executive's offices and saw an “X-3” script and I immediately knew it was a lot fatter. I was like, “What the hell is this draft?”
"But don't worry about it."
I was like, "No, I'm the director and I’m worrying about this draft. Tell me what it is, please."
I grabbed the script. It was like a crazy moment, but I opened the first page and it said, “Africa. Storm. Kids dying of no water. She creates a thunderstorm and saves all these children.”
That's a pretty cool idea. What is this? They went, "Oh, it's the Halle Berry script." I went, "OK. She hasn't signed up yet." But this is what she wants it to be and once she signs up, we'll throw it in the bin.
I was like, "Wow, are you going to do that to an Oscar-winning actress who plays Storm? I'm out of here.” I quit at that point. I thought, minced meat. That stayed with me and made me think Hollywood does some stuff well, but not in my style. But "First Class" was interesting because Singer wasn’t involved at first. He rang me up, "Well, Fox isn't going to work with me," and he went, "Don't worry about that. They've changed their minds."
I knew that they threw money at problems, so I thought maybe it would be nice to make a movie where I can think of some stuff and it can actually happen. And we only had 10 months and there was no script. Singer had come up with the idea of the '60s and the Cuban missile crisis. I thought, "This is pretty cool. I always wanted to do a Bond." Another story didn't do it; it nearly got fucked. So I thought, "I'll do it." And it was fun, it was good. It was a challenge. I like challenges.
Q: You had this amazing cast and got Michael Fassbender as Magneto. You had the sense that you were making your own Bond movie essentially with him.
Matthew Vaughn: Yeah. He thought so as well.
Q: Precisely. What about your memories of shooting "X-Men: First Class" that stands out to you?
Matthew Vaughn: I think making blue people feel real and giving that emotion. It's not easy. You're on set and it's dripping and you are definitely taking fantasy and trying to make it a story that you believe and relate to. That's the thing I think about for all superheroes or fantasy: it's got to still have humanity in it. Then you can enjoy it. That's why I think sometimes people get it wrong because it goes so out there that you just can't relate to it.
Q: Weren't you going to direct "X-Men: Days of Future Past” which was going to be a follow-up to your prequel?”
Matthew Vaughn: I was but Hollywood forgot to tell me after I wrote the damn thing that legally Bryan had directed it first. So I wasn’t mucking around Hollywood anymore. [I decided that] I’m going to go and do "Kingsman."
Q: Was "Kingsman" always bubbling away in the background? Where did it come from?
Matthew Vaughn: "Kingsman" literally came with Mark Millar and I in a pub and – I love you, Daniel Craig – but we were just thinking. Bond’s gotten a bit too serious. And, literally, over a few pints of Guinness in a pub called the Windsor Castle, we just came up with it and plotted the whole thing out.
We were talking about how Ian Fleming didn't want to cast Sean Connery. So the director of "Doctor No" was like, "Fleming, give me two weeks and I will transform the Scottish big bloke into an English gentleman." He took him to Saville Road and converted Connery into Bond. And we thought, "Well, let's take that idea and do our own version.” So that was the kernel of the idea.
Q: You mounted your own search for your Connery equivalent. You had Colin Firth? Did you always see Colin Firth as an action hero? He didn't.
Matthew Vaughn: Then you didn’t see "Bridget Jones?" I thought, "He rocks that sweater and that fight with Hugh." I've always really liked Colin Firth. He's one of the sweetest men and I needed someone to play that character with warmth and a non-snobbery attitude, which I knew he could do. You could turn to the wrong actor; then you’d think "Kingsman" was out of touch. But I think Colin was pitch perfect.
Q: How did you discover Taron Egerton? That was his first film?
Matthew Vaughn: He just walked through the door. Two other actors that I wanted to cast were Daniel Kaluuya and John Wade, they were both unknown as well. They did incredible auditions but then Taron came in and I knew he had it. All three of them actually did. But Taron was amazing and that's why I keep working with him. He'd never been on a movie set before. It was a pretty big risk. Literally, his first day on a movie set was his first day in "Kingsman." I had to explain to him what a boom was. But his audition was so good; he's an effortless actor, intelligent as well.
Q: With the insanity of “Kick-Ass” and then "Kingsman" you go for broke. You don't hold back. You want exploding heads, you have exploding heads. You want a church massacre, you have a church massacre. Was that something that you wanted to pursue?
Matthew Vaughn: Obviously Yes! I don't know how my mind got the idea but I remember ringing up Jane Goldman, my writing partner. We were writing the third act. So I said, “I’ve got a crazy idea. It would be really amazing if their heads exploded, but not in a ‘Scanners’ style. I'll make it look like a beautiful sort of fireworks." She said, "I don't know about this." But then I got it pre-visualized and showed it to her. She's like, "OK, let's go!"
Q: What did you want to do with the sequel, "Kingsman: The Golden Circle?"
Vaughn: Well, for some people, it's an acquired taste. For "Golden Circle," I wante— to dial up the fun, which I did. I think my teenage son may have influenced me a bit too much. But I was watching movies again, getting too serious and I really enjoyed working with Colin and Taron. I've always loved America and Americana. I grew up with '70s culture, which was coming from America, whether it was "Magnum," "A-Team," "Dukes of Hazzard" or "Miami Vice."
I thought I'd love to do a "Kingsman" version of that and that's where “The Statesman” came from – just to have a bit of fun. I don't like boring, serious films. I like entertaining escapism, so I only make what I want to watch. Sadly, I'm making big home videos in a weird way. Home movies are probably a better way of saying it now.
Q: There's a lot of ongoing debate about the greatest shots in cinema history. To nominate a possible contender, it’s that scene with Elton John kicking someone in the face in slow motion in the “Kingsman 2" [“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”] film. How the hell did that come about?
Matthew Vaughn: If you eat sausages and your guys like hot dogs, do you continue enjoying them and not know how they're actually made?
Q: That's why you're saying Elton John didn't actually kick someone in the face?
Matthew Vaughn: I think Elton's kicked many people in the face…
Q: Which led to "Rocketman" [the film based on Elton John’s life starring Taron Edgerton] of course.
Matthew Vaughn: "Rocketman" was surreal because it was literally one of the greatest days of my life, with Elton playing a piano in between takes. He didn't need any of me, or of everyone [but he asked], "What do you want to hear?" It was like having an Elton John jukebox and he was so sweet to the crew; it was pretty surreal. I mean, my whole life has been surreal, but that was one of those moments.
At the end of the day, he said to me, "I have a screenplay about my life and my music, but nobody wants to make it. Would you read it?" I was like, "Oh fuck, this has to be the world's worst if nobody wants to make an Elton John film with his music and he's been trying to make it for 15 years. Yeah, this is going to be a dogshit of a script."
Welcome to Hollywood, by the way, that sums up Hollywood in all its glory, not universally of course. Everyone said “no” to it and then I read the script – literally going from the set to back home and couldn't put it down. I was like, "What am I missing?"
Then I did some digging and [found out that] no one in Hollywood wanted to make it because they thought there was too much homosexuality and I'm like, "Whatever." Too much drugs and, it should be a PG 13? I was like, "You can't make an Elton John PG 13 movie." But we did it.
Q: You made it, but you didn't direct it because you were going to direct "Kingman 3" at one point?
Matthew Vaughn: I actually will be doing a musical next year. I can't talk about it. It's taking me so long to find a musical to do because, a musical.... It's like an action movie is only as good as the action. Or a comedy is only as good as the humor. A musical is only as good as the music. And Elton John's catalog is pretty hard to beat. So I'm trying to mash it, at least. And I think we've nearly got that.
Q: A Matthew Vaughn musical might be one hell of a thing! You were going to direct "Kingsman 3" as well. But then you ended up directing "The King's Man," which of course is the prequel. Why the switch?
Matthew Vaughn: I think "The King’s Man" was meant to be a TV series with the anniversary of World War One and what was going on in the world. We found what "The Kingsman" was about — the sort of aristocratic, rich people losing their children and then founding The Kingsman and giving the money to an agency to make sure war would never happen again.
I always thought that was fascinating. I think history is really important. I wanted to do something where historical events go back to the masses, making people look up characters and learn that we've made mistakes in the past. Let's try and learn from them and not repeat them.
Q: There was a change of tone as well.
Matthew Vaughn: It's kind of a World War 1 action comedy. But the whole thing is, if you do a prequel, like you're going to do a prequel to “Bond” or “Superman,” you don't start with Bond being 007 or Superman flying with a cape on. They have to start somewhere different for the journey to begin. As I said, the death of Conrad is the birth of “Kingsman.” That's why the first half was a bit more serious.
Q: Is the “Kingsman” journey done?
Matthew Vaughn: No, we’ve got to get on it. We are working on that [“Kingsman: The Blue Blood”] at the moment but it's a weird time to be in the movie business; we're not making movies. Well, we are, and I am, but that's another story. It's a tough time but next year we will be rebooting "Kick-Ass.”
Q: You can't just drop something like that and expect you not to follow it up.
Matthew Vaughn: The clues are the words "reboot" and "Kick-Ass." Imagine those two terms. “Kick-Ass” sort of changed people's perceptions of what a superhero film was at that time. So we're doing it again. It's none of the characters from the other "Kick-Ass.” We’re going off on a tangent but I can't really talk about that.
Q: "Argylle" started off as your little lockdown movie and then grew so much.
Matthew Vaughn: It was a combination of things. There was the lock down. I was with my daughters and showed them “Romancing The Stone.” They loved it. I was like, "Oh God, I really enjoyed it again, I forgot how much I liked it."
Then I also remembered my first successful date as a teenager was because of "Romancing the Stone." I wanted to make a movie where that might spawn many more successful dates for an audience which, I hope, this will do. I wish you all luck when you see it. It was an odd time because when the book of "Argylle" arrived in manuscript, all this weird shit was going online saying it's not real but underneath, it's a real book. I couldn't get book #1 breaking as new Intellectual Property but there aren't many people bothering to do it at the studios. They're learning now. This has taught me that maybe the audience does want original films.
Anyway, I asked them to only do a trailer for the first 28 minutes of the footage in the film and they did. You'll see that even what you saw in the film isn't quite the same as in the trailer. But we wanted to do something sort of very meta because you can't just remake "Romancing the Stone." You've got to do things differently.
I just so love the idea of what would happen if a wizard went to JK Rowling after book #3 and said, "You know what? Wizards are real. Hogwarts is real. I'm real and I’ll show you what it's really like going on an adventure." We thought we'd do that with spies. Elly Conway, in real life, will become the JK Rowling of spy novels. But in the film, we sort of fast-forwarded into the future.
Q In the film, you have Henry Cavill who plays Argylle with an amazing hairdo. But then there's a real world component as well with Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elly Conway.
Matthew Vaughn: I haven't met Elly Conway. I would be emailed by her, because she actually doesn't know what to say. I love that. She speaks for herself but she actually doesn't like traveling and she's playing an Elly Conway that won't fly. She's having to go on a train. We took her love of cats just a little bit further.
Q: She takes a cat wherever she goes. So for a very eventful train journey, indeed.
Matthew Vaughn: That's just the beginning. That's the tip of the iceberg. A real spy comes into her world and she's trying to understand why, how she thinks spies are. Sam Rockwell is not what she can imagine as what spies are. So she has to go and learn the hard way what real life spies do, compared to the cliche spies I was guilty of making up.
Q: Was it tricky to shoot, matching up the action sequences – cutting between say, Cavill as the super agent and Rockwell, the "real" agent?
Matthew Vaughn: We actually did the whole thing twice. There's a lot of scenes where we had to shoot everything twice and make sure it all matched so you just have to have patience.
Q: There's more mad, insane stuff. Where does that come from?
Matthew Vaughn: Well, yeah, as I said, when you see the trailer, we don't show that the whole movie is about switching off. You're going to go on a roller coaster ride. Hang on and by the end of what you went through, you'll actually feel good.
Q: Talk about the cat. Matthew, who is the cat?
Matthew Vaughn: We had a cat on the first day of filming but I fired the cat because it was very expensive. A pain in the arse. I went into my daughter's bedroom and said I'm borrowing your cat. I didn't quite think it through. I'd have to drive to work with the cat every day. With this film, I'm now a director and a cat handler. I didn't like cats to be very clear. I'm a dog person. but I'm a cat person for a while. The cat won me over. Chip is the real name of the cat, but he plays Alfie in the film.
Q: He was a natural, he took to it immediately.
Matthew Vaughn: He was a good cat. He behaved and, maybe, that's the trick -- to put your own animals in because they're relaxed and know you. They say don't work with kids and animals. If they're your own kid or animal, that might be the way to do it.
Q: Is it true that Bryce Dallas Howard now has a cat just like Chip?
Matthew Vaughn: He's got Chip's color. As a wrap gift, I got Chip's cousin who was just born and I gave it to her. I think the cat's called Moose. And yeah, maybe Moose and Chip will be in the sequel.
Q: We have this real book, "Argylle," by Elly Conway not being read by anyone apart from the crew. And we haven't even scratched the surface. Matthew, this film has the cat. But also, you've got an amazing cast. You've got Brian Cranston, who else is in there?
Matthew Vaughn: And Catherine O'Hara. We touched upon Henry Carville and Dua Lipa as well. Then there's John Cena, Ariana Dubose. They're all in there. Sam Jackson. I was like, who's on, who's off? Where's the great cast? And they all did bring it to me. They're all different. And yes, indeed. Chip is in "Argylle." The cat steals the show!
When it comes to contemporary pop music — from Beyonce to Miley Cyrus and far more — the independent dance music marketing company PRO MOTION has been the go-to place for remix curation and dance/pop marketing agency since the early ’80s.
They’ve handled contemporary pop stars such as Adele, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Coldplay, Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Clarkson, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Sam Smith, Shakira, Taylor Swift, and The Weeknd.
Launched in 1983, PRO MOTION is the oldest and largest in the world. The New York and Los Angeles-based firm has played an essential role in curating remixes and creating the ground swell for thousands of up-and-coming and established, domestic and international recording artists, helping jumpstart careers and propel pop culture status.
PRO MOTION is the only independent dance/pop promotion agency of its kind to market the music they remix and represent it to both the industry and the consumer. Social media is a priority with all domestic and international PRO MOTION campaigns. With over 500,000 devoted online followers, the Manhattan office custom designs each initiative utilizing its clients’ visual and auditory assets. Such leaders as American Express, Cirque du Soleil, NBC/Universal, Pepsi, and Smirnoff have retained PRO MOTION’s expertise to help brand their products within the music consumer space.
Its founder, Brad LeBeau, has quite the story. “As a child I was never interested in rock music. It was groups like the O’Jays, the Spinners and the Jackson 5 that got my attention. Growing up in the ‘70s, I was more interested in watching “Soul Train” with Don Cornelius than Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” It was considered odd for a boy like me to be tuned into black music, but I didn’t care. I was guided by instinct then and now.”Now 66 years old, LeBeau started deejaying in clubs while attending Brandeis University in 1976. After graduating, LeBeau returned to NYC where he deejayed at Manhattan’s Xenon (Studio 54’s biggest competitor at the time.) While playing music during the early ‘80s, LeBeau was approached by major labels interested in him spinning their 12″ singles. Realizing that his support mattered, the 26-year-old opened PRO MOTION on his father’s birthday, July 5th, an homage to the man that “encouraged his son to follow his dream.”Since then, LeBeau and his team has not only promoted the latest and greatest but also legendary artists such as Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Cher, Curtis Mayfield, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Shirley Bassey and Whitney Houston, among others. They’ve worked with iconic rockers AC/DC, Billy Idol, Blondie, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, INXS, Lenny Kravitz, Rolling Stones, Queen, The Doors, and U2 as well as superstar DJ/producers Calvin Harris, Chainsmokers, David Guetta, Deadmau5, Diplo, Kygo, Marshmello, and Tiësto.
As a career highlight, LeBeau proudly cites his executive producer role with Diana Ross. There he oversaw the remix of four classic Ross tracks (by Eric Kupper). Each secured #1 Billboard chart status to the #1 spot again, making her the only artist ever to have her charted songs reach #1 twice, as a career highlight.Due to his commitment to club culture, LeBeau is the idea man and independent producer (along with Ian Bonhôte and Scout Productions) behind the forthcoming “Teardrops On The Dance Floor” documentary that will deal with the never-before-addressed Herculean popularity of dance music and the work of some of today’s most successful DJs. The series will look at the cultural and historical context in which dance music was born and subsequently grew over the last 50 years.Deadline said: “Teardrops On the Dance Floor will offer a deep dive into the work of some of today’s most successful DJs and an exploration of their influences over 50 years of music, dancing and raving.”
In order to get a handle on LeBeau’s celebration of his 50 years surviving in a very arduous business, I had to make a pilgrimage to his uptown Harlem HQ — which doubles as an archive and museum of pop culture mementos and collectibles. Though I could spend an entire day interviewing him over his vast and fascinating collection, I ended up discussing his history and how it relates to the general story of pop music.
Q: Your first record was Freda Payne?Brad LeBeau: My first favorite record was “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne on Invictus Records. I remember that because I was at a sleep-away camp. I hated it. I was the kid who cried when he got on the bus. I couldn’t sleep one night and was walking around. I had heard this song come out of some kind of bunk and it was “Band of Gold.” I was not raised in a rock-and-roll space when my contemporaries in grammar school and high school were listening to rock-and-roll, the Beatles, the Stones. I was listening to Black records. My whole thing was R&B. It was The O’Jays and The Spinners. I did like Elton John because he had a bit of soul in his music. He, by the way, was one of the first white artists to perform on “Soul Train.” I always watched Soul Train with its dance line, the jumble board and Don Cornelius who became a client of mine later in life. He really had that low voice, a really nice guy. I was about nine and watching Channel 13 in my room. There was a group performing and the MC called them The Main Ingredient. I didn’t know who they were but I watched them sing this song and was just locked in. As soon as it was over, I literally ran to the fucking record store and said, “Do you have the new Main Ingredient record?” The guy behind the counter says there is no new Main Ingredient single, because back then it was 45s. I said to him, “Do you have the album?” He said, “We have their last album. I said, “Can I listen to it before I buy it? He said no, but I bought it anyway. I ran home, put the needle on the record player but the song that I heard on television wasn’t there. I ran back to the store and asked him, “do you have the record album before that?” He said, “Yeah.” I asked, “Can I listen to it before I buy it?” He said, no, but I bought it anyway. It wasn’t there either. It was a new song. “Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely”. I wasn’t raised to be in the music business. Most people who are in the business knew early. We didn’t discuss that in my house. Jewish pre-med was the thing. I remember coming home from high school in my junior year and I said to my mother, “This whole college thing, I’m not really feeling it. She said, “Is that right?” I said, “Yeah” But she goes, “Good because here’s the list of schools we’re going to apply to. If you get into Brandeis, that’s where you’ll go.”My mother ruled with an iron microphone. I didn’t test well, I got very nervous. I suffered from anxiety. When you’re a kid, they say if you can’t get the first question right, just go on. They did that for people like me because I would get paralyzed. My SAT scores were very low. I knew early on, I wasn’t going to get into a good school. I tried to set it up so that I don’t have to go to college. My mom died when I was 19, at the beginning of my sophomore year. I called my father from the pay phone at the cafeteria. “Now that Mommy’s passed away, I don’t think I’m cut out for this.” I wasn’t; they were so smart at Brandeis and I wasn’t prepared. I said, “Do you mind if I drop out of the program?”
My father said something that changed my life. “As men, we have to work more during our waking hours in this society than anything else. If you’re truly blessed, you’ll love what you do for a living. do whatever you want to do.” If my mother was alive, she’d have me stay in the program. That conversation changed my life. “I appreciate that, Dad. Can I have a larger allowance?” I was getting 25 bucks a week in 1976. He said, “No, I’m paying for your college. You want more money, get a job.” I said, “I’m a full-time student.” Then he said, “Get a job at night or on the weekend.” Every semester at Brandeis then was $6,000.
We didn’t discuss the music thing. I only found music because he then said, “Get a job at night or on the weekend if you’re a full-time student.” This is 1976. I used to go out dancing with my girlfriend from the Five Towns in Whitmere. We used to go to these clubs in Boston on the weekends and I fucking loved the whole disco scene. I would go to these clubs where I would dance all night long and see the DJ doing his thing with the records. What is the thing with the 45s? I’m looking, but it was too intimidating to ask.Q: You knew early on that it was called a pole — what motivated you.BL: There’s a pole, something that attracts you. That Main Ingredient experience had attracted me but we didn’t talk about it in my house. With my mother, I listened to Broadway show tunes, Mamas and Papas, the Beatles, Nat Cole, Judy Garland, a collection of everything. My father was a jewelry designer on Madison Avenue for like a million years. When I was in my 20s, my father said, “Come into the store, I want to talk to you. Do you want to get in on the business? Don’t you want to be known as LeBeau and Son for the rest of your life?” I didn’t want to be in the business. He asked me why and I said, “If I ever work for you, they’ll never find your fucking body.” I love my father, but I treated him like my father.Q: How old are you?LeBeau: I’m going to be 67 in January. We’re close. Q: In 1951, “Rocket 88” came out. That was the beginning of the word rock-and-roll. I was born in 1953. I started with rock.BL: And Alan Freed. That’s “Rocket 88.” Was that a Black record? It was a Black record. The original singer was not credited. It was re-recorded.Q: You found club music and knew that’s where you wanted to build your career out of that?LeBeau: It was an intuitive thing. I would say that the greatest things that have happened in my life, more often than not, have happened against my better judgment. I’m dancing with Elise Broadsky during the weekends and I thought, “If I’m dancing at these clubs anyway, I could probably do something with the records.” I went back home that summer between sophomore and junior year. There was a club on the Upper East Side called Court Street. I go to the deejay and say, “I’m a deejay. Do you need someone?” “No problem,” he said. I had never done it before. He said, “OK, come and audition.” I auditioned and cleared the floor. I didn’t get the job so I went back to college. In my junior year, I started to meet people in the music business in Boston — it was a hub for disco records — such as John Luongo, all those guys, the Boston Record Pool. They took me under their wing. I began my deejay education in a Black club called Kicks in Boston. That’s when I started to really figure out how to do this whole 12 inches thing. I’m queuing up a Grace Jones record. What do you do when you queue? You read the label. I noticed on the bottom of the label, the name of the original record label for Grace Jones was Beam Junction Records. I look at the address — 360 East 72nd street, New York City. That’s where I was raised. I said no way. I went back during my break and knocked on the apartment door of Cy and Eileen Berlin/Beam Junction Records. They had signed Grace Jones as a model in France and that’s how I met a lot of these deejays — these big New York deejays — a lot of them since Jim Burgess died from AIDS. All of those guys used to come and pick up records.I met Judy Weinstein before her record pool. Then I got into the pool. That’s when I came back to New York. People thought I was from Boston but I wasn’t. I graduated early from Brandeis. I stayed in school but I dropped out of pre-med. It was going fucking end badly. I knew it and told my father that probably I’m not smart enough because I wasn’t. So I deejayed during college at these clubs in Boston. Fast forward, I came back to New York after college and there was a club that was opening up in New York called Magique.Q: You must have known the late Tony Smith — he was a deejay there. I’m good friends with his husband, so I got to know Tony. Sad about his sudden deathBL: Yes. I recently met Mike at Tony’s funeral. In fact, I was supposed to interview Tony for a series that I do, I’ll show you that. A week before he died — he kept putting it off and he called me one day. I said, “We’re on for the interview tomorrow.” He said, “I’m not feeling so well.”Q: He went into the hospital and never came out. I worked with Mike to get the bulk of Tony’s collection sold because Mike eventually moved out of the place that they lived in.BL: As I was saying, I heard that this club Magique had opened up right on East 60th Street. Oh, really? Big room. I auditioned, and got the job, Wednesday and Saturday. Drug addiction started right around that time in a big way. I drank alcohol during my senior year of high school and throughout college. I always went to class, never skipped one. First semester of my senior year, I’m at Brandeis’s library which I went to every night. My friend Evan Shyer taps me on the shoulder and says, “Brad, I got something in my room. You wanna try it?” I said, “Sure.” I didn’t say, “What is it?” I go up to his room and he puts two lines out. It started a 25-year addiction. Hang on. I go back to Brandeis, to the library, open my book and I read the same paragraph for 30 minutes. I tap Evan on the shoulder and say, “Can we do more?” That killed so many people.I went back to New York, got hired at Xenon and Magique. I had been playing at Magique for a year, and got a call from Jellybean who said, “Hey Brad…” I knew him because I used to be a record reviewer for a small magazine called Disco Tech. When I came back from the summer after I didn’t get the job at that small club because I cleared the floor. I auditioned again and got the job five nights a week, 25 bucks a night. The deejay who gave it to me was moving on — can’t remember his name — but the guy who was leaving Court Street, gave me his job after I auditioned and said, “I know somebody who went to high school with you, but they were in a class older than you. They now work for a magazine called Disco Tech. Would you like to meet?” I said, “Sure.” They hired me as an intern for $125 a week. That’s when I started to meet record people in New York versus Boston. At the same time, Magique opens up, and I’m a deejay there. During that time, I got a job at Ze Records.Q: Ze was a European French label with a rich guy, Michael Zilkha, as the owner.BL: I’m deejaying at Magique at night and I got a job at Ze. I did all of them. It was Cristina, August Darnell and Kid Creole. The first number one record I had on the Billboard chart was Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band’s “Deputy of Love”. It was b side of the record. The A side was “I’m an Indian Too.” My first Number One. Working at Ze records during the day. Jellybean calls me. Says he’s leaving Xenon and going to the Fun House. Do I want to audition for Xenon? Well, Howard Stein was a whole other thing. His father was a gangster who was murdered by the Westies. They dismembered him and left a body part in each borough just to send him out. I auditioned at Xenon and got the job. My alcoholism and cocaine addiction was on fire. I’m on fucking fire every night before I played on Wednesday and Saturday. I would go to the bar before I started because I would be nervous about playing. I had anxiety. I didn’t want anyone to know. I would say to the bartender, “Can you make me a Greyhound? It’s grapefruit juice and vodka. Send it up to the DJ booth and keep them coming all night.”
They would do that. On one Wednesday night, I said that to the bartender, Kenya. He said, “I can’t.” I said, “Do know my name?” He said, “Yeah, you’re Brad.” I said, “You know what I do with this club?” He said, “You’re the DJ, right?” I said, “Exactly.” He said, “Brad, let me tell you how I know who you are.” He said, “Thirty minutes before you came to the club tonight, the manager had a meeting and it was about you. He said the first person who serves Brad one cocktail will be fired on the spot.”Q: You were that bad?BL: “What do I do?” So I said, “Can you send fruit juice and ice up to the booth? I’ll be right back.” Where did I go? Exactly. That’s how I carried on about 10 years ago. I’m sober now, like 22 years.About 10 years ago, I was thinking about that manager. I found him online. Patrick McBride. I called him and said, “Patrick, it’s Brad.” He said, “How are you doing? I said, “I’m doing really well. I have to tell you something. I don’t think I ever thanked you.”I told him this story, I don’t think he ever knew. And yes, I didn’t get sober. I got sober years later but that was the first time I heard the message, but I didn’t listen. I just want to thank you because I survived me. And he said, “Brad, you’re more than right.” Now he’s involved in religious books. It’s wild. This is the guy who’d take people out the back, but if you don’t do the right thing, the club will fucking hurt you. These people always liked me, but they felt, I think, not sorry for me. I was never this aggressive guy. Anyway, I’m deejaying at Xenon and record people are now calling me at home, saying, “Brad, can you put us on the guest list? We want to bring you records.” I said, “Do I have to pay for the records?” They said, “No, we’re going to bring them to you. I didn’t know about any of that stuff. What do you? I did it just to meet girls and make cash. I thought there was no future in this thing. unexpectedly, Xenon closed in 1983. When Howard sold the club, he sold all my records that were locked in the bin. Q: He sold your records away? What gave him the right to do that?BL: That was Howard Stein. Then he opened the O bar. Anyhow, When I’m in the deejay booth and these record people would come to me and give me records and they said, would you play them? I said not right now. They said, what do you mean? I said, I haven’t even heard of them. I may not like them. If I don’t like them, I won’t play them. Apparently he didn’t tell people that. There was one intern who used to call me constantly. He used to say, “Can you put me on the guest list?” I said, “Sure.” He was a really nice guy — Jason Flom. Q: Oh, really? Jason Flom who went on to run Atlantic and Virgin Records.BL: We all go back a million years. After these promotions people would talk to me and try to cajole me into playing records. I remember thinking to myself, “You have no idea how to talk to people like me, to get people excited about music. I could probably do that.” I was working at Xenon and at Ze promoting Don Armando, Second Avenue Rhumba band. I was getting a feel for it. I got fired from Ze because of Audrey Joseph. She was threatened by me. She told him to fire me and I was. I then went to work for Genya Ravan at Polish Records, which was a great experience. I sat with [the late R&B singer] Ronnie Spector — they were very close. We got along and I love the music. If I like music, I’ll promote her. Whatever, this was right around the time that Ronnie wrote the book about leaving Phil [Spector, her husband and brilliant producer]. That was a great experience. I then went to work for a small independent promotion company. I was the head of promotion and now I really got involved with the Billboard Show. His name was Jim Knapp. It was called Music. It was very small but he got a lot of good records. He did a lot of cocaine and gave clients cocaine. It was a mess but I really learned how to promote records to Billboard.
That’s when my career started. I was there for about six months and then got a call from Gerald Busby, the first Black man to run a pop department at a major label. We did a lot of his records. He was at A&M and went to MCA semi-recently.He said, “I heard about you. You should start your own company. If you do, MCA will support you.”
Then I’m at Studio 54 doing cocaine on the balcony with my boss’s best friend, Jack Hopke. Jack says to me, “You need to leave Jim and start your own company.” Between Gerald and Jim, I opened my company in 1983. And this is how I did it. I was working for a really nasty guy. He gave me a great opportunity, but I would hear how he talked badly about people on the phone and then talk nicely to them to their face. I didn’t trust him. I knew that when I left, he was good. He would badmouth me. My mother didn’t raise an idiot child. When I decided to start the company, one hour every day during lunch, I did something else to start it. I rented an office, watched the carpet go in and rented furniture since I couldn’t afford to buy it. I saw the phones come in. I didn’t tell anybody about my starting the company because I knew I would get back to my boss Jim. I remember saying to [journalist] Stephanie Sheppard, “Can we have coffee one day?” This was about two weeks before I was going to launch the company. I started it, July 5, the Monday of that year’s new music seminar at the New York Hilton. I said, “I know you’re a writer. Maybe when I start my own company, you can write something about it. I would really appreciate that.” Anyway, it’s now the Friday before the Monday that I’m going to launch the company on July 5th. I have to get out of my job. I have to leave the company. I have to leave my employer. How am I going to do this? I figured if I quit, he’s really going to be pissed off.Q: If you asked him for more salary, then he’ll fire you.BL: So I did and said, “If you can’t afford it, I understand.” He said, “I really can’t afford that.” I said, “Then I have to go and find something else.” I go home and as soon as I get home, the phone rings. I found somebody who we both knew who said, “Jim is already badmouthing you. He said he fired you.” Now, this is Friday night. Monday, first day of the New Music seminar in 1983. Disco News was a free magazine in everybody’s bag. Right on the front page: “Brad Lebeau starts New Promotion Company.” God bless Stephanie Shepherd! Who are they going to believe? They’re not going to believe Jim now. How did I start my company in two days? I had no expectation of this thing ever fucking lasting.Q: You never have any idea. I’ve read every kind of book on the entertainment business, whether it’s the professional guide or a memoir, and you’ve got to tell them a story. But OK, 40th anniversary, you’ve been doing this for all these years. You must have 1,000 million insights. BL: David Salidor is the first person who approached me and said, “Maybe we should do this after 40 years.” I said, “I don’t know.” I have never hired a publicist, ever. David and I worked here when I started the company. I rented office space to David in my office at 8th Avenue and 57th. He had a small office and when I started the company, a block away, he rented an office. Anyway, he did some press for us in a barter deal because we had to get up and running. I had never done press before that. I just never found the right guy. Now I’m thinking my story is important after 40 years. I thought, especially in a business that’s gone through many trials and tribulations, almost nobody’s around from when I started. Either they’re dead or they’re just not relevant or they’re not in the business anymore. And my business is flourishing. I said, “I’m thinking about this. What do you think?” He said, “You really should do it.” We went back and forth for months on this, I couldn’t commit because it’s just like, how relevant, how self-involved? Yes, I have a lot of stories.Q: It’s mid ‘80s. Talk about the pivotal changes that have occurred in your experience and what you consider, let’s say the five to 10 touch points in your career. BL: When I started the company, it was mailing finished vinyl. The big thing then was overnight mail. Then people were talking about cell phones. They were talking about personal computers. We ended up getting one. A couple of years later, there was no internet. 12 inch vinyl reminds me of those times of the fax machine. Big. No more big fax machines. We got one, I was hip. We did that and it went from vinyl to cassettes. Then, remember the DAT, that lasted for about 20 seconds. Then it went to CDs and now it’s digital.
My company has always ridden this wave of formats. At the end of the day, it’s not how you consume music. It’s how good the music you’re consuming is. When I started, the first record I still had was, “Meet The Beatles.” On that album, of the 12 tracks, there were six number one pop records, and reasonably priced. Now there were 14 tracks on an album before they were digital and the price was ridiculous. You might get one single. Somewhere along the lines, as the British say, somebody lost the plot. Prices went up, quality went down. Now with digital, it’s a singles market and who’s going to buy? You’re not buying for $9.99. You can listen to the same fucking record all day long and you have to buy anything and you could choose the song. The record business created its own extinction. It’s like yellow cabs bitching and moaning about how Uber stole their business. Uber didn’t steal your business. You didn’t look after your business. Uber came in and took advantage of the marketplace. The way I’ve operated this business, all I care about is quality. I’m not taking the money if I think the record is a piece of shit. Now, if I do — if I get involved in a record and you hire me to remix it and we do it but if you don’t like it — I still fucking love it.Q: There were lots of changes in promotion.BL: You asked me about touch points. I started promoting vinyl billboard charts. Numbers are great. We get involved in retail promotion. Remember dance music? When I started, it was gay. A couple of people liked it, but really pop departments were not getting involved. We’re going straight to the Pop charts, we’re going to the Black charts, whatever the moment. If those records don’t hit, they come back to Club culture. Club culture has always been the back door. We’ll always let you in but you’d prefer to go through the front door — the Pop department. You’re desperate enough to come through the back door as a dance record.Now, every pop artist wants their record remixed. Let’s get a hip executive producing Reba McEntyre’s Greatest Hits, and Diana Ross — her Greatest Hits. We must have A&R’d over 1,000 remixes here. The biggest in the world like Beyonce. And new ones, domestic and international people. They trust me with their repertoire.
Take The O’Jays… I got a call from Chuck Gamble — Kenny Gamble’s nephew — who says, “Did you executive produce the Boss remix by Diana Ross? I’ve been looking for you.” I said, “How can I help?” He goes, “Look, it will be the 50th anniversary of Philly International. We would like you to remix a record for our next 50 years. We’ll send you the catalog.” I said, “You don’t have to. I already have it. That’s the musical fabric of my youth.” He sat here for six hours. I said, “I’ll tell you what the record is — ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ by McFadden and Whitehead. That’s the record we have to remix.” We did that one during COVID for Philly International. It’s been this way since the remix thing started — again, not my idea. I used to recommend remixes. I knew if I recommended them to record companies, I would get the project to promote.I got a call about 25 years ago from Hillary Shave, who was then the head of promotion for Virgin Records. “Brad, we just signed Depeche Mode from Mute over to Virgin. Part of the deal is that Dave Gahan has his own solo record on Virgin. Do you know who Dave Gahan is? I said, “Yeah. Do you?” She goes, “We have no one here to A&R the remix because we let go of the remix department. Can you help?” I was right there. We remixed the record and it went number one on Billboard.
About six months later, I got a call on Christmas Eve Day from a guy with a deep British voice, “I just want to say ‘thank you’ for remixing and promoting the Dave Gahan single. I said, “It’s my pleasure but the record is six months old. Who are you?” He said, “My name is Daniel Miller.” I said, “Oh, Daniel of Mute.” He said, “Would you like to executive produce the Depeche Mode Greatest Hits package?” That’s how it started. I did the Spice Girls remix package and it became this thing again. Hillary called me, not because I woke up one morning and said, “Oh, great idea. Let me do this. This is my life.” It’s not like I’m that bright. It’s not like I need to do that or need to do social media.Q: Why didn’t you develop a music supervisor division?BL: I don’t know… I haven’t but I’m at a point in my life right now where, I feel so blessed. I tell you, I was close to losing this company because of the cocaine and the alcohol. I had, as my father would say, one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel. I was ready to meet a girl. She wanted me to quit using it. I said I would but I didn’t. She left me and I was destroyed. I got sober to get the girl back. I did not, but I had the chance to get her back 10 years later and then she started drinking. That’s life; it ebbs and flows. I got sober to get the girl back and got a call. I was left with no staff. Now, everybody who works with me was working remotely because of COVID. I had no staff left. I’m sitting in my office one day. I’d just gotten sober or started to stop drinking.
I got a call from the woman who used to manage INXS. I had never spoken to her before she went, “I heard about your company. INXS just did a record with Ray Charles and we have a remix. Would you be interested in promoting it?” Now? I had basically no business. Then I said, “My pleasure. Let me listen to it. If I like it, I’ll do it.” I always kept quality in front of me. I listened to it. It did very well. She said, “If it goes top 10, I’ll give you a bonus.” It went top 10. I got a bonus and then I realized, OK, I was sober. Yeah. if I don’t drink, this happens. But if I drink, that happens. And you know, in the program I was in — which I don’t really want to talk about — they say, “Hang around for the miracle.” I don’t have just one cookie; I have to have the box. I don’t have one slice of pizza; I eat the whole pie. I go to the gym so I have to go every day. That’s how I am and I understand that now.Q: You’ve had quite a journey…BL: I’ve lived two lives in one lifetime. I fucked up half my life. But it was the first half. Now I have this opportunity which, when you’re sober, the decisions are a lot better. You’re not as impulsive as you think about things. I’m grateful to be alive today. I used to walk around with a fucking chip on my shoulder. You need to know who I am and it’s very, very different now. I didn’t intend it to be this way. It just happened. I’m a reasonable guy. I’m open to things. I was never open to things when I drank. It was contempt prior to investigation. If it wasn’t my idea, it sucked. And now, I asked for help. The fact that I’m alive is a miracle for what I did to myself. I thank you for coming here. But here’s the thing today — I listen more than I talk. I’ll talk to you if you want. I’m an open book about it. I’m ok talking about my addiction. Q: Your history is very important. What’s most important is that you’ve addressed the state of the business. But what’s happened now is a variety of things. I love alternative music. I just love rock-and-roll. I appreciate hip hop as an alternative offshoot of rock-and-roll. There are still rock bands and a huge audience for them and rock-and-roll. We don’t have it because radio doesn’t function in the same way it used to function. Clubs don’t function in the same way they used to function. It’s all changed. Give me five minutes on the state of things now.BL: The music business created whatever extinction it’s experiencing. Where major labels are giving the biggest pop artists a smaller window for their music to secure the kinds of streams and numbers that they need to support and spend more money. A lot of it is because of this machine — your cell phone. Back in the day, the only music show you’d ever see was the Grammys. Now, you have a music award show on television every 10 minutes. Whether it’s country, urban, pop or whatever. Everybody now has this vehicle. This device is moving so quickly that the consumption of music is a nanosecond. When I got involved in the music business, I would go to radio station program directors and say, “OK. What are the stations in the marketplace playing the record if it’s new? What are the local sales? What similar stations around the country are playing it?” But now, forget about local. It’s all digital. Local doesn’t count anymore. What are the social media numbers? Nobody wants to make a commitment to new music. They’re waiting for the last nine guys to tell them what’s been happening with the record. I call it the “American Idol” model, which is, they’re going on the numbers. They’re not going on the quality of the music.Q: I used to say “American Idol” damaged the music business. The problem with “American Idol” is that it’s basically a show of singers doing lounge music on TV. Everybody’s playing songs everyone knows — there’s no art or innovation.BL: My point with American Idol” is this: even if you’re voted off of “American Idol” in the first round, you can still get a record deal. Why? Because the number of views and impressions you get is enough to impress a record company to say, “We’ll sign you. You have a built-in audience.” Radio stations now are not interested in the quality of a record even if it’s a major label. They go, “Tell us Brad, what are the numbers, the streaming numbers, YouTube numbers, social media numbers on the new John Legend record? It’s not enough in a week. We need more.”How much more do you need? “We’ll let you know what we’re talking about — millions upon millions of streams before someone wants to take a look at it.” Now they’re looking at the numbers, they’re not listening to the music and therefore, when they sign records, they’re not listening to the music. It’s based on who’s involved. Take a look at the number of collaborations now, it’s a fucking running joke. You have SNL skits where the rapper has 16 collaborators. No one’s trusting acts that are going out on their own anymore. In concerts, it’s Enrique Iglesias with Ricky Martin. Two superstars have to go together. They can’t sell tickets otherwise.Q: With what they’re doing now, they can be an unknown artist as long as they get a sneaker deal.BL: That’s right. But who discovered the artist? This guy basically grandfathers this act in; they can’t fucking sing to save their fucking life but they look fucking hip. They’re slick and appeal to that 18 to 24 sweet spot demographic that every advertiser wants for cars, for credit cards, as does everybody else and with that comes TikTok. Now it’s all sound bites. It’s not a full song. somebody doing the 22nd dance routine and that’s your song. Can the artist sing? It doesn’t matter. Look at TikTok. There’s no career. They’re signing singles. There’s no career left. I’ll tell you something: you and I could dress weird and do a 20-secon video. I’m telling you we can get a fucking record deal.Q: Even me….?LeBeau: What we don’t sell is records. We will sell some big chain or you get McDonald’s to give you a deal like they did. You’re not in the music business anymore. You’re in the advertising business. You’re in the business of selling video. You want to sell sneakers, booze, cars. You want to endorse a credit card. You want to do fashion, whatever you want. It’s Ben Affleck for Dunkin Donuts with the Bronx rapper, Ice Spice, and her “Munchkins” fanbase. Did you see the commercial? It’s fucking brilliant. He’s like an executive at Dunkin Donuts with a real Boston accent. He doesn’t really get the whole souI thing. I don’t get it. Duncan Munchkin, that’s what it is basically. The music business has clawed their way to mediocrity. You have no argument with me. Why is that? Somewhere along the lines, it happened right after the age of Mo Austin [the late head of WarnerBros.], all you need is one great guy to hire somebody who’s not really good. They assume it’s the Peter Principle gone amok and they hire someone else who doesn’t know and they hire someone else who doesn’t know.By the way, it’s not just the music business. I went to the post office the other day and I’m waiting in line and the woman behind the post office is looking at her phone and doesn’t say that it’s closed. I said, “Excuse me, I’m waiting. She goes, “Okay.” What the fuck is that?” I don’t run this company that way. I’m not interested in mediocrity. I don’t want bonuses on my work. You hire me to excel. I shouldn’t get a bonus because I excel. What? If you hire me to do a mediocre job and I do a good job, I get more money. If I do a great job, I get more money. You hire me to do the best job I can do. That’s why I’m in business for 40 fucking years. That’s why I only do one new record a week for 40 years. We just released the Martin Garrix with Lloyiso on RCA; superstar deejays now compete against rock stars. That’s my life. Q: We just have to have a handle on what’s going on and you can get something in through these new ways as long as you understand the technology.BL: Remember when we started with music, it wasn’t visual; it was only auditory. Then MTV happened, which by the way, they never thought that would last. They thought it was a fad like rap music. They never thought rap music would be more than a fad. the internet. It’s not going to last. Napster, it won’t last. Let the kids share. It will go away. It was ignorance that created their extinction. It was the perfect storm, bad quality, ignorance and sticking heads in the sand like an ostrich when new things were coming. The record business has always been run by older men who didn’t want to change. They change when they are forced to change. Not when they saw the light but only when they felt the heat was still on.
Kuper's "The Metamorphosis.”
As the co-founder and editor of World War 3 Illustrated, a political graphics magazine that has been a forum for political artists for 43 years, artist/writer/conceptualist Peter Kuper came to my attention even before I worked with him at Heavy Metal.
The Eisner and National Cartoonists Society Award winner is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Nation and MAD Magazine where he has written and illustrated SPY vs. SPY every issue since 1997.
He has produced over two dozen books including “Sticks and Stones” (winner of The Society of Illustrators gold medal), "The System," "Diario de Oaxaca," "Ruins" (winner of the 2016 Eisner Award) and adaptations of many of Franz Kafka's works into comics including "The Metamorphosis.”
His latest graphic novel is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Kuper is currently working on INterSECTS , a graphic novel history of insects and the people who have studied them that will be published by W.W. Norton in 2025. Kuper has lectured on comics extensively at schools and universities around the world. A winner of the 2018 National Cartoonists Society Award for best graphic novel and Italy’s 2022 Lucca award for best short story collection, he continues to challenge the boundaries of what makes a great graphic novel. In this email interview he tersely outlines some of ideas and history in advance of his appearance at this Saturday's Christmas Con at the New Yorker Hotel. Go towww.bigapplecc.com
Q: It seems that you split your work between established characters, turning classics in comics and your own political essaying -- how do you balance it all?
PK: I generally find myself working seven days a week. It really comes out of my love of a variety of aspects of cartooning— gag/editorial cartoons, short form comics and graphic novels—and reacting to what’s going on in the world which is both terrifying and quite inspiring.
Q: In creating your own concepts, where do you start -- first with writing or the images?
PK: When I’m doing my weekly Charlie Hebdo four panel comic I’m looking up headline news about the environment for inspiration. For something like "Spy vs Spy," I do a lot of staring into space and thinking about the way the characters look and start doodling. Since the strip is wordless, I’m running on the visual aspect first. My New Yorker cartoons also come from news headlines or daily interactions and conversations that strike a cord.
Q: You started in an era when comics were going from being viewed as juvenile to being for serious adults -- how did you make the transition?
PK: I feel like the world made the transition — I just continued to do what I was always doing and the audience came to that work. More and more adults realized the value of comics that those of us who loved the form knew all along. Places like Heavy Metal provided an early outlet and small publishers like Fantagraphics, then some of the hipper magazines ran one pagers and after a decade of low pay I started finding more and more opportunities. Patience is a virtue!
Q: What's it like building on a legacy versus developing your own characters?
PK: With Spy vs Spy I really didn’t have to do too much building, just continue to walk in the pointy footsteps of Antonio Prohias (the late Cuban-American cartoonist was the creator of the satirical comic strip Spy vs. Spy, which he illustrated for Mad Magazine from 1961 to 1987). His characters were in my DNA from years and years of reading Mad. With my own work I’m probably the most consistent character I’ve created through autobiographical comics which are changing all the time. I can only hope there’s an audience that is interested in following that particular nutty character and all his crazy choices.
Q: Would you like to move your work into other media, make a doc or do a series?
PK: I spent a year and a half developing my autobiographical comics into an animated series for HBO back in the late '90s. I worked on a documentary with a couple of Harvard professors doing some animation about the containment of nuclear waste. And I did art exhibitions like one I had at the New York Public library last year. There have been a number of other projects outside of comics. I am open to these possibilities, but I found myself focused on books. This is the place where I have the most control and best outcomes with finished projects.
Q: Where do you see yourself going?
PK: Home, after a long day at my studio. Eventually dying, but, hopefully, not before I finish my next book called "INterSECTS," which is a 250-page graphic novel about the history of insects and the people who have studied them. I've been working on that for nearly four years and it comes out in May 2025. Then I planned to have a number of exhibitions of work from that book, hopefully institutions like natural history museums.
To first make a mark professionally within the world of graphic novels and comic book art, I landed an editorial gig at Heavy Metal — the fantastic magazine built around a vast library of French and European graphic art stories. But it broadened itself beyond the foreign stuff by also drawing on art out of the National Lampoon camp and other hipster publications. One of those artists I got introduced to was Paul Kirchner who had created the Dope Rider for High Times and the strip “The Bus” for Heavy Metal. He penciled stories for DC's horror line and wrote and illustrated occasional short features for Marvel's Epic Illustrated. He illustrated the graphic novel “Murder By Remote Control.”
Starting out in comics during the 1970s as an assistant to the late, legendary innovator Wally Wood, the young Kirchner could not have had a better mentor. Wood was noted for his seminal work in EC Comics and then at Marvel. Though he developed his own unique body of work, eventually, the Connecticut native left comics to work in editorial illustration, advertising, and toy design, But, in recent years, he resumed his Dope Rider strip, a collection of which has been published as "A Fistful of Delirium.” He also has created a second volume of “The Bus” and a new series, 'Hieronymus & Bosch,' which has appeared at the Adult Swim website and in book form.
Born January 29, 1952, Kirchner has worked in everything from comic strips and toy design to advertising and editorial art. Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut., he attended Cooper Union School of Art but left in his third year, when, with the help of Larry Hama and Neal Adams, he began getting work in the comic book industry. At one point, he had left comics behind but, in 2002, Kirchner returned to freelance illustration, working primarily in advertising. Kirchner still lives in Connecticut with his wife, Sandy Rabinowitz, an illustrator specializing in equine art. Plus, they have three adult children.
On December 16th, Kirchner is a featured artist spotlighted at The Big Apple Comic Con’s Christmas Con at the New Yorker Hotel. For info go to:www.bigapplecc.com
Q: When and how did you decide the life of an artist was the right thing for you-- talk about any or all moments of revelation?
PK: The decision to pursue a career as an artist was gradual, solidifying after a series of validations made me feel that I might have what it takes. As a child I was praised for my artistic ability and since I loved praise—and still do—I stuck with it. In high school I was the class artist and did posters for dances and cartoons for the school newspaper. I was also a comic fan, a card-carrying member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and hoped to work in comics some day. The parents of my girlfriend (now wife) Sandy Rabinowitz were artists and her mother was a graduate of the Cooper Union School of Art. In those days Cooper Union was tuition-free and acceptance was highly competitive. She encouraged me to apply there and when I got in it gave me additional confidence. While in art school I worked on my comics, and when I finished one that I thought was good enough to use as a sample I showed it to Neal Adams, who called Joe Orlando at DC and recommended it to me. Orlando gave me a script to pencil and that was when I decided, “I can do this.”
Q: Psychedelia has a big part to play in your work -- can you describe when this style came to when, how and why?
PK: I’ve never been able to get excited about the kind of art that sells in galleries—what people term “fine art.” I may admire the technique, but generally it doesn’t move me. I’ve always been more attracted to “people’s art,” the art you see on record album covers, concert posters, pinball machines, tattoos, graffiti, pulp book covers, and of course, comic books—art that packs a punch. I am particularly attracted to surrealistic art, which juxtaposes the images of dreams, visions, and hallucinations with the world of concrete reality. It adds a layer of meaning and visual interest to a scene that might otherwise be mundane. This is what I like to do in my Dope Rider comics and what I did in my graphic novel, Murder by Remote Control.
Q: Your drawing style is clearly influenced by artists who had their roots in EC comics such as the late Wally Wood…
PK: I was certainly inspired by the work of EC artists like Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, and Al Williamson, but the one who had the most influence on me would be Wally Wood, since I assisted him for several years. It was not only his approach to penciling and inking that I picked up, but his whole way of breaking down a story and laying out pages. For a time my work looked like an imitation of Wood’s, so much so that Fantagraphics, in its anthology of his erotic art, attributed to him some illustrations I had done for National Screw. Fortunately, I got them to correct that before publication. Outside of Wood, I took some storytelling influence from Steranko, particularly from his “At the Stroke of Midnight” story from Tower of Shadows #1. I was more attracted to European and underground comics than to the superhero fare of Marvel and DC, so other influences included Philippe Druillet and Rick Griffin.
Q: What comes first script then drawing or the opposite?
PK: I start out with just an outline of a story in my mind. The first thing I do is break down the story, laying it out into rough frames on a standard-sized sheet of paper (or papers if it’s going to run more than one page). During this process I get an idea of what can be communicated visually and where I will need captions or dialogue. By the time I am penciling the frames I have a rough idea of the dialogue and leave space for it. I only write the script when the art is completely done, as I keep rewriting it in my mind as I work. In indie comics it’s expected that artists hand-letter their pages, as it’s integral to the art, but I do the text and balloons on a separate layer in Photoshop because I continue to rewrite and edit until the moment I have to turn in the work. I understand that this is considered less authentic, but so be it.
Q: How do you split your creative efforts now between your various series and developing new series?
I have two ongoing projects, Dope Rider and “the bus.” I spend most of my time on Dope Rider, because it appears every month in High Times magazine and I have to meet a deadline. Also, they pay me for it, and the two most motivating things for a cartoonist are a deadline and a paycheck, and for an alternative cartoonist to actually get paid nowadays is almost unheard of. Dope Rider is only one page a month, which doesn’t seem like much, but I try to do something different and interesting each time and though I don’t always meet my highest expectations I put a lot of thought into it. The process of laying out the page, penciling the frames, inking them, then scanning them to add color and lettering in Photoshop takes a whole week. I don’t mean a week of 12-hour days like some cartoonists put in, but a week of normal work days. As far as "the bus," I have trouble buckling down to work on it due to the absence of 1) a deadline, and 2) a paycheck. That is, I won't see any money from new strips of “the bus” after I have completed enough strips for a book and that book is published. Also, with Dope Rider, I have free rein to draw almost anything I want. With “the bus,” I have a constrained format and a lot of repetitive elements, so it feels more like work and less like fun. I have 40 pages of new bus strips and have inked only 14 so far. I need to complete at least 48 for a book. Another challenge is that I have to keep up the quality. I would rather just end the strip than do a book that I felt was not quite as good as the first two.
Q: Do you dream of seeing your concepts and creations become films or animation?
PK: Yes I do, whether or not it will ever actually happen. If you are a creative person, your creativity does not only apply to the work, it imagines ideas of how much success and reward the work might bring you. For example, if for some reason I was asked to be a guest on Joe Rogan’s show, he might ask, “Did you ever imagine this could happen?” To be honest, I would have to answer, “Yes, I’ve imagined it many times—what you ask me about, how I would answer, whether you would want me to smoke weed on the show with you, etc.” I dream of many fanciful things that are unlikely to happen, but I can’t help daydreaming. On the plus side, the dream helps motivate me to produce. BTW, I have been approached by guys in Hollywood to partner up with them to develop a Dope Rider movie. Then I check them out on IMDb and see they have no credits besides assistant producer on a short-running cable show or something like that. In other words, they are people who don’t have much of a foothold in the industry and are hoping to attach themselves to some intellectual property that they might sell, but they have nothing to contribute to it. These are not people whose phone calls are returned. That sounds arrogant of me, I know, but I have to be careful. My characters, my intellectual property, are all I have and I must try to avoid being exploited.
Q: How autobiographical is your work?
PK: I’m in the world of indie comics, where creators are often their own main characters, but I’ve avoided the autobiographical approach. The characters I’m known for are Dope Rider and a commuter who rides the bus, but I’m not a chronic weed smoker and I rarely have occasion to use mass transit. Rather than focus on myself and my own opinions, experiences, and relationships, I do comics as a way to get out of myself, to escape from my day-to-day life and let my imagination roam. Of course, my work reflects some aspects of myself such my absurdist sense of humor and my interest in mysticism and alternate realities.
Q: What did your parents think of your work -- talk about their reaction or reactions?
PK: I had a good relationship with my parents but it had to be managed. They were fine people but rather straitlaced and judgmental and it was best not to tell them things about which you knew they would disapprove. In my 20s, I was mostly working for High Times, Screw, and Heavy Metal and I didn’t want to tell my parents that, mentioning only my work as an assistant to other artists like Ralph Reese and Wally Wood. Naturally, this caused them concern, as they wondered if I was doing much of anything at all. One time my father, who was a doctor, asked me how much this Wally Wood fellow made in a year. I guessed about $18,000. “My god, the orderlies at the hospital make that much!” responded my father. Okay, but it was not my ambition to be a hospital orderly. After the art director at Screw moved on to the New York Times, he gave me regular illustration assignments for that prestigious publication, which made my parents happy. In the 1980s I began applying my comics to more commercial work, such as doing comics for various toy lines, so I became completely respectable. Sandy’s parents, who were rather bohemian in their outlook, were enthusiastic about my comics all along, so my relationship with them was always closer and more open than my relationship with my own parents.
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