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Herb Sundays 69: Will Calcutt
Original Ghostly crew artist/photographer/philosopher shares 2 playlists of delicate perfection. One by day, and one, After Dark.
‘The Herb Sundays working slogan is ‘there are no guilty pleasures, only guilty people’ and now I’m guilty too because I made you a nearly perfect playlist for your nearly perfect Sunday afternoon. Start playing at 12:36pm☼ and it’ll carry you through to sunset with visions of the floating world and sunny weightlessness as your prize, if the gods weigh your pleasures and find them without the heaviness of guilt.**
If all goes according to plan the sunbeams will fill your heart and transmute into preserving amber so you can return to this playlist on the honeyed idylls of any Sunday, ready to be whisked away from your troubles by the smoothness of Tom Browne’s flugelhorn-powered flight, the decadent Mutt Lange Drip of Hysteria, Roy Orbison’s French crooning, Eddie Rabbitt apologia, or Idris Muhammad’s grand tour of paradise.”
☼ calculated for Los Angeles f.k.a. Imrryr the Dreaming City. Calculate your own location and time here
**and at Sunset, if you are the Nite Manager of Ghostly’s Twitter account, begin playing the Herb After Dark playlist 69AD I made to honor GAD seducing the mainstream. NITE MANAGER USE ONLY! NO HERBS ALLOWED!
I can't do a chronology of friendship. I usually don’t remember the beginnings of them. Friendships exist in my mind mainly as flashes of experiences.
I met Will Calcutt in college at Michigan on the quivering edge of the millennium, quite early into the ordeal, and we connected on music, art, and ideas. Will was the first person I knew who recognized the real potential of digital photography, not just for long-exposure nature pics (he could do that too) but as a new sort of medium, a platform for catching the psychic drift of time. His personal site in 2000 boasted "ten thousand photos" and featured a rogues gallery of recurring characters, the audience for which was unclear. But the idea of the endeavor was cemented: The documentation of our age has evolved.
The NYT review of Wolfgang Tillmans’ recent MoMA show helped me see:
We follow the artist through the last days of the darkroom and the rise of digital cameras, which he adopted with only moderate success. A sunset in Puerto Rico, a club night in Hackney, the transit of Venus, liquid concrete before it hardens: “To Look Without Fear” confirms that Tillmans has always been a photographer of transience, of things here today and gone tomorrow.
So how does one capture the era? For Will, the digital camera, a DSLR (or “digital single-lens reflex camera” AKA the big ones with the replaceable lenses) was always the chosen tool. I actually had never looked up the term but finally did. The DSLR combines the optics and mechanisms of an SLR (film camera) with a digital image sensor and works like this: Inside the camera body is a mirror that reflects the light coming from the lens up into an optical viewfinder which is how you can see what you’re shooting, right through the lens. The “Reflex” in question occurs when the shutter is pressed, and when the mirror flips up out of the way, and the shutter slides open. Light coming from the lens takes a straight shot to the imaging sensor where a photograph is made.
Neat. The mirror is the province of the DSLR, unlike the recently re-popular point-and-shoot. This tangibility of both old and new science feels like a perfect description of Will’s work. The DSLR is a Gatling gun of seemingly unlimited rounds, only pausing to let the laggard flash warm up. This speed is necessary, but not enough for shooting good pictures. You actually have to love people and know how to engage them. You have to know how to make them look great, even more so than they do themselves. If you're familiar with the work of "The Cobra Snake" you can get a sense of what Will’s pics of events are like but missing a vital edge of philosophy. Will was shooting like that (well before, and better) but not for public consumption. Nothing was (or is) better than getting a link to a photoset by Will taken from the previous week's function.
Similar to my apathy towards knowing the beginnings of friendships, I feel the same when reading a biography. The environs of one's youth feel perfunctory. I want to know what it was that lit their whole being on fire, or how a human mind takes flight. Coming-of-age stuff is where it gets good for me. If we're talking about superheroes or supervillains, it's what we call the ‘origin story’ and I ask about a person’s origin story once I get to know them. I’ve always loved Will’s as it has all the fixin’s of a good comic book one, rife with science and social disruption. I asked Will to refresh me:
I was eleven living in Northern Michigan and had built a ski jump out-of-bounds with some other kids using fallen logs to give us an angle to clear a gully. I’d cleared the jump a half dozen times earlier in the day but on this run I didn’t make it completely past the far lip of the gully and my left ski tip dug into the ground and the boot binding didn’t release as it was intended to so I swung around and hit the ground, knocking my breath out.
In the haze after the impact I realized that my left leg was on backwards, still locked into the binding, with the ski sticking straight out of the ground. I found out later it was a spiral fracture of my femur, which would explain the symphony of pain I felt while being pulled behind a Ski Patrol snowmobile in a sled down the ski hill over rough terrain, or when they threw me in the back of my mom’s station wagon and we drove down rough unpaved roads before getting to paved roads on the way to the hospital.
I spent a month in traction, which is medical technology that hasn’t advanced much in two thousand years. You’re immobilized and hung from a contraption while your bones knit back together.
To survive the hospital stay I listened to old radio serials on cassette like The Shadow, War of the Worlds, and Suspense, specifically The House in Cypress Canyon. The first Gulf War coincided with my hospital stay so my two TV channel options were gleeful & gloating Beauty-of-Our-Weapons coverage from the news featuring grainy F-117 Nighthawk footage of precision bombings or the James Bond marathon on TBS.
Will and I eventually would start taking art history classes together which formed a powerful image and philosophy kit. While ripping through slides in class and soaking in manifestos, we even forged our own mini (fake?) guild, the Sincerists, a sort of Bauhaus-ian idea for an art movement, one where creatives, thinkers, and would-be do-ers could utilize each other’s unique abilities. In 2023, we’d call it at DAO and get to work but we had to settle for this as a concept, one that we wove into the early days of Ghostly.
Every great record label of yore needed a visual leader, be it Factory’s formative years with Peter Saville, 4AD’s Vaughn Oliver, or Barney Bubbles’ tenure at Stiff. Because Will understood essential image, he understood mythmaking which made him an ideal candidate to lead many key Ghostly art innovations, photography, and design. From his expansive portraits to his eye-popping design, no two things would look alike, and this diversity of style was hugely important to me, and still is for Ghostly. It would also be Will that would show me the work of Michael Cina and goad me to reach out.
Photography continues to grow for me as a profound medium, I'm sure in no small part to Will’s ways of seeing. Picture-making is a lot of things coming together from the decisive moment to the discipline of the edit and watching photographers work is deceptively unassuming. I was already very lucky when Ghostly started, working with legend Doug Coombe, who has documented the Detroit scene more accurately than anyone.
Will's work to me isn't the frozen moment as much as it is going inside the wave. It is the invisible payload of what's happening at that said moment, both in the room and in the universe. The truth is subjective, but more than that, the camera sort of has its own id.
Speed has a philosophy. The heart wants what it wants. Somewhere in these many vectors is the truth. Way beyond rhetoric or workaday morality is the white-hot core of art, a blistering empty space. The truth is post-gender, post-thought, and post-reason; a sacred comet hurtling toward earth. Escape was never the mission, it's getting inside the feeling that counts.
Will’s eye was pivotal in the storytelling of each of Matthew Dear’s early albums and Will's ear would prove equally as reliable, hipping me to acts like Choir Of Young Believers and Kllo, via MySpace links most likely, both impossibly early in their careers who became avant-pop staples for Ghostly. He championed Ghostly acts like Skeletons and built worlds around them from paper maché globes, cutouts, and pre-social media mood boards. As young artists, already being self-conscious, the musicians often didn't see their own mythic potential as much as Will did and often had to amble out at the 8th door of Will's aesthetic skyscraper for their covers. I know in my primordial fear of trying to get the label off the ground, I tapped out at maybe floor 11 or 12, knowing there were still vertical miles ahead. There are no scenes from the top of the building because there is no arrival.
But beyond talent Will is a person and friend, one who has always been associated with dogs and the love, adventure, and up-for-it-ness they seem to possess. But Will, perhaps my most cerebral and conceptual friend is also my most earthy friend too. It's just about what's pure and good.
I've become closer friends with Will in recent years and whether it's roaming a Berlin park after a break-up or just an afternoon in LA, Will continues to expand my mind. The only other mission Will wants to put you on is to not become calcified, nor deadened to the world of love or magic.
I knew with this Herb, the playlist part, and the music, was going to get short shrift under the copy and image, and so we get a first: Two herbs in one, both attuned to the cosmos. Romance is king, and beauty is a lie, but then again, it's salvation.
Don't let the fact that others are doing it wrong stop you from doing it right.
“In millennium days, collegiate versions of Sam and I dreamt of a Sincerist Movement as an alternative to the flood of irony we felt we were drowning in culturally, politically, spiritually. The joke was supremely on us as irony only multiplied and metastasized, gained frightful sentience, and consumed all before it like a famished Saturn. We’re lucky that the midwestern saudade we sought to channel into our Greatest Hits remains strong, and while a true Sincerist Movement may not happen for a thousand years, or possibly never, in our imagination it has been a celestial body for us to navigate by through murky and obscured waters. I sincerely love the songs on this playlist and I sincerely hope you have a nearly perfect afternoon listening to the playlist.” - Will
From The Field:
“P.S. I deeply encourage you to listen to HARD SKY by Jesse Jenkins, a peerless achievement in the Space Cowboy Balearic Comedown genre and one of my absolute favorite albums of the last decade. Sam loves it too.”
Earlier this year, we mourned the loss of Ghostly labelmate Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, who passed away just before New Year’s Eve after a short period of illness.
The Copenhagen-based artist of Danish, Greek, and Indonesian roots, was a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, best known for his Choir of Young Believers project. The alias reflected his solo material and included a rotating cast of supporting players. The project achieved multiple number-one songs in Denmark and was named the "Best New Act" at the 2009 Danish Music Awards.
Will had put this group onto my radar originally and made a playlist (Spotify) In dreams we are all closer, which is a lovely document of the group’s work.
Thanks for reading Herb Sundays, now go drift away like Dobie Gray.