People like Gilbert Blecken are some of the most important people in music. Gilbert has dedicated his life to making fanzines, buying records, waiting for bands to finish practice to he can interview them and, most importantly, take their photo. Despite having had his photos printed in the likes of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and Kerrang!, Gilbert’s body of work is still relatively unknown. Perhaps it’s because he never really set out to be a photographer, he was just making fanzines. The reason why his photos are so clear is that he was worried they wouldn’t photocopy properly, and the reason he took the photos at all was because he had already interviewed the subjects and felt it would be weird not to.
The passion and sheer admiration I feel about Gilbert’s work is probably the way Gilbert feels about the musicians he has photographed over the years. His photos are a joyous bundle that encapsulates about 20 years of indie music, and it’s genuinely some of the most beautiful, candid photography I’ve ever come across. Gush over, let’s get on with the interview.
Some of your photos seem to be taken a long, long time ago, when did you first get into photography?
I got a Canon T50 as a present when I was a teenager in 1984 which is also the camera I’m still using now. I started to take photos of the girls and boys in my school class, I guess they were my early superstars. Since then I have always been interested in portraits only.
What kind of music are you into?
I would hate to say what everyone says ("I’m into all kinds of music“) even though that would probably be the correct answer. But let’s be more precise: my favourite band is Sparks, my favourite singer is Billy MacKenzie of The Associates and my favourite album is the LP by Strawberry Switchblade. And if I had to name just one album of the past two years that really impressed me, it would be Susanne Sundfør’s The Silicone Veil.
What is it about musicians that really draws you to photograph them?
As a child I was pretty shy and had difficulties connecting with other people. Music has always been my tool to translate the whole world for me, and so I feel very grateful to some musicians. Meeting a few of them years later was very exciting and it was rare that I felt disappointed. What often surprised me was that a lot of musicians were quite insecure and full of doubts even if they’d had a career most people would be proud of. It seems the more intelligent you are, the more you question things, and so I have always felt that there was something almost obscene about people that are too confident.
Tell us about meeting Nirvana, how did that come about?
I started as a fanzine writer in 1989 at the age of 19. The circulation of my fanzine wasn’t very high and record companies were usually reluctant to organise interviews for me. Very often, the only way to get them was to ask the musicians themselves when they arrived late afternoons to do their soundchecks. This was also how the Nirvana interview happened: when I asked Kurt Cobain for a spontaneous interview, he agreed right away.
Taking the photos was also very easy on that day, it seems Kurt even enjoyed posing on some of them. I remember reading several articles in the mainstream press back then about how difficult he was apparently, but from my own experience I can only say that at least towards his fan base he behaved like a true gentleman.
Musically, I prefer the 1980s, but in retrospect it’s fascinating how diverse the 1990s were. With rave, grunge, britpop, techno, jungle, trip hop and so on it seemed you had a new genre every year.
A lot of your photos are taken in the 1990s, what were the 1990s to you?
Musically, I prefer the 1980s, but in retrospect it’s fascinating how diverse the 1990s were. With rave, grunge, britpop, techno, jungle, trip hop and so on it seemed you had a new genre every year. I even enjoyed Melody Maker’s desperate attempt to establish Romo (Romantic Modernists) in 1995. As a lover of vinyl, however, I have very mixed feelings about the 1990s. I hated the fact that I was forced to buy some of my favourite 1990s albums on CD because they were never released on vinyl.
Tell us about your meeting with Trish Keenan from Broadcast?
That was in 2005 when I was writing for Berlin’s city magazine Tip. I entered the concert hall late afternoon when the band was just soundchecking and I remember they played my favourite Broadcast song Come On Let’s Go over and over. After they had finished, Trish asked me if I would mind doing the interview in a laundrette two streets away from the venue. To be honest, it was a strange feeling and a bit depressing to see Trish pushing the band’s dirty clothes into the washing machine. It made me realise what bands even on that level (Broadcast may not have been stars, but they definitely had a name) had to take care of themselves.
I have always had the idea that in an ideal world, artists should just think about their art and not much else. Funnily enough, this was also an issue in the interview and Trish said that she would hate to do an album every year, not because of the music but because of everything else that goes with it; being caught up in the “machine” as she called it. After the interview, we still had a bit of time and so I asked her for a list of her 10 favourite albums. I used to do this quite often, but Trish’s list was certainly one of the most interesting top tens that I received over the years.
The Blur photoshoot seems so friendly – do you have a certain technique to make your subjects relax?
This was one of the very few interviews at the time that was organised by the record company. When Modern Life Is Rubbish came out, Blur were still associated with the rave scene and some people even expected their second album to be the final nail in the coffin of their career. In other words, there weren’t many German music journalists in 1993 who wanted to interview the band. The EMI press lady was even thankful that I expressed interest so she could get enough names on her schedule.
I was the first interviewer on that day, had plenty of time and got along quite well with Damon and Alex, maybe because both of them were just one or two years older than I was. What was very important about my photos – and was also the case here – was the fact that I usually took them after the interview. The musicians already knew that I had a genuine interest in them because of the previous conversation, and this is probably why a lot them them look quite relaxed in my photos, at least this is what I like to think.
Since the interviews would take much more time than the photos, I basically saw the photos as a byproduct in the early years. But after a while I realised they were much more important to me. Still, doing an interview has always been a very good excuse to take photos afterwards, so I went on doing both.
“What was very important about my photos was that I usually took them after the interview. The musicians already knew that I had a genuine interest in them because of the previous conversation, and this is probably why a lot them them look quite relaxed in my photos, at least this is what I like to think.”
Which other photographers do you look up to or feel have inspired you?
I have had a weakness for the kitsch of Pierre et Gilles since the early 1990s, but they never had any influence on my own photography. Partly because I usually was never given much time to really “arrange” a setting and partly because I never had the equipment. When I started taking photos of musicians, I always had the thought that my photos had to be extremely clear and sharp so that they would still look good and recognisable in my printed black and white fanzine. So the special look of my photos was actually born out of those limitations, and when I realised years later that they had a certain style, I just kept it.
What’s your favourite anecdote from your photographic career?
Certainly not my favourite, but probably the funniest anecdote was when I interviewed Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction in 1993, he was on tour with his other band Porno For Pyros. I thought that their debut album wasn’t very good and so some of my questions were a bit provocative, I guess. Perry already wasn’t very fond of the direction the interview took, but when I also began to take photos he seriously asked: “Why do you want to take photos of me when you hate me so much?”