The Sound on the Napkin

24.November 2014

What are you doing and why?

I consider myself an artist, rather than than the technical term, luthier, which is a guitar builder. Basically I'm just following my inspiration in whatever form I see fit. Since I started in a band, guitar as a utilitarian object that's got elements of functionality, personality, nostalgia, and it's a very personal thing. Hence the range and variety of what you can buy commercially. The guitar thing makes great sense to me. That's where I'm at at the moment.

The beautiful thing about electric guitars is that they're relatively easy to make and you're only limited by your imagination. I've seen so many guitars, I've played so many, I've owned so many, with the idea of the guitar being very personal, like a piece of Jewelry, a statement about yourself, your tastes, your inspiration. It's as much a visual statement as it is a working tool. But I've never found a guitar hanging on a shop wall that I've connected with. So I set out to make my own. I had a go at one 8 years ago, which was a hack, a first attempt. And then I made my first serious one two years ago and no I've got several in production. The first real one I made has been taken on by downtown music, and is hanging on the wall there, waiting to be sold. I'm on the right track, they liked it enough to hang it on the wall and put a 4k pricetag. In terms of believing what you can do, that guitar could have sat in a case and been for my own enjoyment.

I've come to a time in my life to make this not only a craft, but a profession, and it's the passion that I haven't followed my whole live. I haven't fully committed until now.

In terms of my background. I'm a visual arts university honors graduate. I did that in early 90s in conceptual sculpture in Brisbane. And I had the fortune of going to a University which embraced conceptual work and the traditional medium wasn't available. We had quite young and progressive lecturers who pushed us that we could do anything we liked and be critiqued and taken seriously with it. That was a freedom that I ran with and loved, and I did quite well there and was exhibited for 6 years after that as an artist. It's difficult working in a 3d sculptural format, because there's a lot of cost involved, depending on your idea. Artworks are often shown once or twice and then fall off the globe. I tried painting as well, but I always returned to the physical form. And then rock and roll took over.

I was in punk rock band for 8 years, touring around, had a great time. And then the guitar really stuck in my brain. I had plans to start building guitars for many years, but reality intervenes and the pursuit of money, security, the day to day stuff, all too easily eclipses your passions. So call it a midlife crisis if you like, but now's the time.

The money comes from part time hospitality as a fall back job that I've never really strayed that much from. I was a sales rep for about 6 years in the building industry, which I found quite dry and taxing. All the while I'd build little things and have grand plans and do drawings. I got into modifying bicycles and making things with friends, but In terms of making it a full time passion, if not a full-time job. That hasn't happened until now. In terms of career, I would say that I've been filling in time until now. I still work part time. I've made a decision to work part time and do the starving artist thing in order to have the time to be in here. Full time work is lovely in terms of security and money but it's the classic artist conundrum, about time to devote to your craft versus putting food on the table. But there's a freedom in making that mental shift. That makes your passion coming alive, it inches closer and closer and starts to grow and the energy starts to flow. That's what I'm getting up every day to pursue now. And work fills in the time in between, rather than the other way around.

How do you do the math? When you're working part time or casually, your time is not your own in fact, you're working to a roster and following it and trying to get money through penalty rates, working weekends. It's a week-to-week proposition. It's difficult to save, so i'm working it out as I go. You have to make sacrifices in terms of lifestyle, accommodation, and the usual trappings of mortgages, holidays, flies out the window pretty quickly. But that's always in contrast to what you're getting out of putting in toa  craft that's ultimately spiritually sustaining. There's a reality that I might need a second job. Financially I'm in a situation not that different to a university graduate, but I consider myself picking up where I left off with grand ideas and minimal means to do it. It's having made the decision to do it seems to calm that beast of keeping the wolf from the door financially.

In terms of output, I am making guitars and some other objects, either building things from complete scratch or customizing things like motorcycles with elements that are highly unusual and very unique and personalized. In terms of the cash flow situation, I would like to make less and charge more for it, because I've got a rule that anything that I put out that someone could own has to be extraordinary. I don't want to dumb things down, I don't want to get into mass-production. It's quite a romantic artist's dream if you will, just to make things by hand and be appreciated for them and people will pay. I believe that can happen if the quality and the aesthetic and the magic is there.

Talk to me about making things by hand?

I'm drawing something. That's an innate ability that I'm just learning to recognize, in terms of my eye for shape, form, and composition. But it is an amazing thing, and it still amazes me every day to leave the timber mill with a whole heap of logs, dressed up timber, and for a guitar to come out the other end. That's by decision I've made, mistakes I've made, getting my hands dirty, learning from physical contact with your medium. The converse would be designing something on a computer, giving it to a manufacturer, and then seeing a finished product, which is how mainstream guitar-making works. A beautiful thing is that you have a vision of what you want to build. I work with very rough drawings, that usually start out scribbled on a  napkin in a coffeeshop that gets transferred to a bigger life drawing that I can depart from, this form is good enough to get started on. I have a vision in my head and arrogantly I feel like it's fully formed, but through mistakes, working with your medium, you move, it reacts, you attack it, it responds. It's like you're discovering what the guitar is meant to be, rather than manipulating it to your will. And that is a magical process. What you end up with is often quite different to what you started out to achieve, and infinitely more rewarding and aesthetically rich.  But as an oil painter would be nostalgic about smell of oil and the feel of brushes and how it all responds to canvas, it's the same with wood. It's a natural thing , it has flaws as well that you can discover in timber, that you have to work with, and sawdust the smell of danish oil, dirty hands, fingers stuck together with glue, almost finishing something completely only for a part of it to chip out and having to do that again. It's an incredibly, there's a romance about it that is highly addictive. As a painter would understand, it's an environment that you never want to be far from.

How do you feel about the finished objects?

I haven't got a lot. I've just started this journey. In guitar-making and working with wood, wen you're applying final stains, and I do an oil finish exclusively rather than a polyurethane, it's like opening a present on Christmas day as a kid, it juts comes to life. Timber that can look quite bland, something that is finished through hours and hours of sanding, when you apply the final finish to it, it comes to life and it's like it's a reward for the finesse and the love that you've put in. it loves you back in a way when it's finished. Then you can stand back and appreciate it for what it is. Letting go of them can be a little bit hard sometimes, although when you get a favorable review from someone you respect, that's worth its weight in gold. You're making something very personal that you've poured everything you have in to, and then you're putting out into the public, to be appreciated, commented on, and ultimately played and used as a tool, and you live in hope that someone interprets your inspiration and it becomes something special for them. That's what ultimately I want. If someone can recognize it.

What do you mean by It comes to life? With guitar building, and the same with motorbikes, there's so much accuracy required for it to be basic and functioning. That can be quite preoccupying and challenging because room for error is very small. It's only once all the important cuts are made, neck profiles established, corrected your mistakes, spending hours sanding, to get it to the point it's ready for finish, once you're done with all the functional aspects that are required, then the finish of it is very important, in terms of color and that's the aesthetic that you're after, which in my mind is on equal footing with it being a tool. That's where It can surprise you as well. I'm learning as much about timber, being a natural substrate, what you can do it, and how it responds. You're very much working within  parameters, versus making something out of plastic or something immediately replicable and one dimensional. It's nice to think that every single guitar is going to have a different character and look.

Not painted, nothing to cover up. Everything is transparent.

I remember when I started oiling up the timber of the first guitar I made, it was revelatory. I'd learnt how, basically that's where my vision of what I wanted this instrument to be, was realized. In terms of the beauty factor, that's of paramount importance, for it to be something that's inspiring. I've been fortunate that most things i've made, i've been really happy with, and they've surprised me how they've come together. In that way it's very reinforcing of the creative process, that you are doing what you're supposed to be doing, and you're feeding off the trials that are involved, feeding off the challenge of it, but you're also getting nourished by the finished product, in terms of its – it feels like you're making a spirit, like it's got a soul. At the end, it's like you're building a little Pinoccio, that someone else is going to have as their treasured thing that can be around forever.

Talk to me about materials

With guitar-making , there are a family of tone woods, which are woods that have been tried and tested over time, and they have distinct characters. A wood like maple or pine, a lighter wood, will have a snappier and brighter sound. Heavier denser woods will have a warmer and richer sound. So it's somewhere between Eric Clapton's sound and Angus Young from ACDC. So I stick with that recipe of what woods you should use. But the wood speaks to you so much visually that I'm interested in experimenting with whatever I can get my hands on that appeals. You can set out to make a guitar that's going to sound roughly in one ballpark, but whoever would build a guitar would not argue that the guitar will sound how it sounds when it's finished, through a whole range of variables. When you first plug it in and start playing it and discover it's personality and color and character, that's a beautiful thing. There are certain timbers that appeal to em, African Wenge, I've had a love affair with and this is the second guitar I'm building out of that. It's actually a legume, very dense, but beautiful pronounced grain, and a real old-world charm. This one in particular is bookmatched. A lot of my aesthetic is from vintage instruments.

What I set out to do, if Leo Fender and Orville Gibson, who were the builders of the two popular guitar companies in the 30s, if they'd sat down together and had some secret designs and prototypes that were never put into production, if you stumbled into that fault, what would be in there? That's what I'm trying to build.

I look at classic designs, and make changes to make it my own, putting so much detail into it to make it something very special. I'm so arrogant. It's like saying “here's a beautifully realized aesthetic form, but I'll make it better.” I'm not worried about it. I suppose that's the artists imperative.

Tell me about the experience of working?

Coming in here, rolling up that door, and thinking about what I'm going to do on that particular day or afternoon or morning, or whatever time I've got available, it's just a wonderful feeling to be in how moving materials around. I spend a lot of time staring at a piece of wood or basically doing a little bit, starting at it, thinking it through, and then making a move again. I'm not at a production line place yet where I'm knocking things out. I'm still learning my craft and that's in its infancy, but it's a nice place to be because sometimes you lose that, where every decision you have to make has to be considered and thought-through. I never really want to lose that, I want to keep challenging myself rather than just trying to gain efficiencies. Hopefully that will take its part when I have more orders than I can deal with, but it's lovely that it's early days, just learning something, taking it seriously. When something works out or works out better than you anticipated, that's serendipity. When I'm away from the workshop is when I do my planning, for what I'm going to do. I sequentially think it through of what needs to happen, but I can only take it so far. In the creative process you can spend every minute planning, but invariably when you start doing something the rules completely change and you're responding to something unexpected. That's the creative process if you ask me. That's where there becomes a dialogue between your intention and what's coming back at you from that object. That's where you make breakthroughs. Through mistakes or what ends up to be a good idea isn't what you thought of, but ends up quite unique. That applies to personal life in terms of embracing mistakes that you make, when things don't work out the way you had hoped or planned, it's how you respond tot hose situations is when new aspects about yourself or your craft open up to you.

I haven't sold anything yet.

With the bike stuff, I customized this bike for the Deus show, using the timbers that I make guitars out of as a rolling advertisement for what I do with guitars. I had so much fun doing it, and have had so much good feedback from it, that customizing motorcycles like that Is something that I'd love to do. People could bring me their bike and tell me that they'd love you to do some work then I could talk it through, they could leave it with me, and they'd ride it away. Timber hand grips, timber switchblocks, custom lights, basically everything, rather than what's available to people going through catalogues and buying bolt-on stuff. To make your bike customized. The two are related.

The bike customization is as much of a passion as the guitars, but if you build it they will come. I'll clean this up and put it in bike shows and magazines. I get stoped all the time. People stop me all the time because they haven't seen anything like it before. I know I'm on to something special, and I'd like to do that for other people.


What do they say?

It's this look of recognition and wonderment at the same time. People who know bikes know what it is –a 250 Yamaha, a beginner's bike– but they see timber mudguards, timber grips, leather seat from council pickup, brass fittings. It's hands on hips, head tilted back, people roll their windows down. I rode it to Bluesfest in Byron Bay, got plenty of comments on it. People respond to the creativity of it, of seeing something that's usually unrelated to bikes, and that's what I love. For instance the criteria of the Deus competition were to make a bike with the most amount of creativity spending the least amount of money. Even though a lot of the bikes there were carbon copies of what Deus would sell in the shop, but in terms of fulfilling that criteria I gave it a good go. I won the People's Choice award. I was changing a downlight at work one day and I thought I could reshape this to make an indicator light, it could look 50s and old school. I used them and some brass fittings from the bar would make good taillights. So I just made it happen. Having limited metalwork knowledge and equipment, I was stuck as to what to do with the fenders/mudguards, so I thought I'd use rigged plywood that I've seen in popular architecture, and that was the peak, the decision that made it into something unique.

Tell me about the mid-life crisis

I finished a long 20-year relationship with a girl and I was on my own for the first time since I was 23. How I spent my time was something completely different. Adjusting to single life was quite a challenge. I suppose that dragged this passion a lot closer over a very short amount of time. It's been great. It's something that i've committed to now, in terms of how I spend my time and also my friends have been very encouraging about it as well. And you hear all these cliché things like follow your passion and all that sort of thing. Which is very easy to dismiss because you have to stay alive, and I had just written it off that I could follow this. It felt like almost a selfish thing before, and an irresponsible thing. It's not like I have any great wealth behind me. I suppose a big life change such as that was jolts you into working out what's important in your life. This has always been there, but I've never entertained it seriously. So that helped me flip that coin over.

You do get to a point where you realize that you're between youth and old age. That you're going well If I'm at the halfway point, what have I done, not in terms of achievements, but what is really enriching and nourishing. What's my contract with the universe. I've known what it is. I consider myself very lucky that I'm not hunting around for a hobby or something to immerse myself in. this has been there since the beginning and now that I'm doing it, it makes perfect sense that this is what I'm here to do. But making that commitment to your craft is very frightening in terms of letting go of having a real job and really the future is a big question mark, but they say that you make your own luck and you create your own destiny. And I'm in here LITERALLY doing that. What I'm building with my hands and the decisions I'm making, I don't consider that I'm building things that are tremendously important to humanity, but I'm in the inspiration business, but if I can put mine into building something, and someone can recognize that. And if it can be a business – actually I never even think of it as a business I think of it as a passion that might pay for itself, which would be lovely. That's about as enriched creative life as I can imagine. I'm not going to limit myself to guitars, that's why I call my business Arthur Street Objects. I'm idea saturated and time poor.

What's scary and hard: It gets difficult when you have to outlay money for media to work with. And then just knowing that I will see money from it, but it wont' be for a while, and it wont' be regular, but the tradeoff is that if I don't put everything into  it then nothing will happen. “To be in the game you have to roll the dice.” I think that's really good. Things like saving, getting older, health concerns, bucket list things, travel, houses, really slide off the page. But like I said the stronger your commitment the less weight those things have. That's the equation how I'm trying to keep it at the moment. If I trust in what I can do, then good energy will come from all that.

The name? Arthur street is a street in fortitude valley, Brisbane. That's where my grandmother lived and where I would visit as a kid growing up. It was a workers cottage, timber, on poles, classic Queensland working class structure, in what was then a very working class area. It was my Narnia. Every time we would go there, my grandmother was a beautiful lady and very humble and kind. This house seemed to breathe its history, nostalgia. It gave me this sense of otherwordliness that I cannot shake and that's where I draw my inspiration from. It housed my mother and her four brothers. She tells me stories about what they got up to, riding coal trains, blowing things up. It was dilapidated and not particularly clean, but coming from a bleak and sterile suburban setting where I grew up, it was another world. Arthur street is a homage to that. The logo is a moth as a symbol of something that is ever-present watchful. The idea of a moth or butterfly or whatever that is something that's transformed from one thing into another. That's what i'm about here, with the bikes, the guitars. Taking an idea and transforming it into something else, while it's something quite familiar as well. I wrote my thesis at U on my grandmothers. My other grandmother was a 50s refrigerator housewife, everything was perfect and clean, make your bed and don't sit on it.

Arthur street had so much soul and pain and memory. It was just unsanitized. It reeked of humanity. The house was dark timber. Anything that I can attribute back to that aesthetically.

I call the bike “my firstborn”.