Writer, public speaker, broadcaster & curator | Berlin, DE
A brief run-through…
I grew up on Sydney’s North Shore, in a suburb called Lane Cove. It’s a nice place – kind of leafy and quiet, with a lot of parks, which is great when you’re a kid. Most of my childhood was concerned, in some way or another, with Star Wars, which I saw when I was about five years old and immediately became some sort of junior professor in the field. By the time Empire Strikes Back came out the following year, I’d already read the novelisation and the comic books, so when we went to see it I could provide my parents with a live commentary of the events unfolding on screen. I think my enthusiasm for explaining things probably began at that moment.
When I was six, I asked my mother to buy me a big exercise book so I could make a list of all the animals in the world. I had a lot of books and encyclopedias about animals already, but I remember it sort of bothered me that they were all separate. I wanted very much to bring all the information closer together.
All this excitement over books and information suggests that I would have been a great student (I’m sure that’s what my parents were hoping!) but I was terrible. By the time I got to high school, I’d stopped doing schoolwork. I was always busy, but none of the things I was doing (which at various times included designing an unbelievably complicated role-playing game about time-travelling robots, writing and illustrating a graphic novel about space-loneliness, which would serve as an allegory for my teenage angst, and making hand-drawn covers for the cassette copies of albums I was taping from the North Sydney public library) were what I was supposed to be doing.
By year nine, I had developed a habit of just walking off the school grounds at the drop of a hat. I’d listen to Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, The Stone Roses’ first album ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’, The Pixies ‘Doolittle’ and Faith No More’s ‘The Real Thing’ while walking around these really boring parts of the lower North Shore. When I think about it now, it’s a bit like a series of Karaoke videos – really great songs illustrated by incredibly banal footage of parks and sunsets and trains going by and cars driving down wet freeways.
I always think of that time – skipping school, listening to music, walking around – as the start of the rest of my life. I guess it was when I realised I could do whatever I liked. After that, figuring out what exactly I wanted to do took a long time.
First, I got a clerical job working at a barristers’ chambers in Sydney’s Phillip St. I didn’t really like the job at all, but I was earning money, so I bought a lot of books and read them on the bus and under my desk when my boss wasn’t looking – it was around this time that I discovered two of my favourite writers – Umberto Eco and William Burroughs. I remember Sharon, the receptionist at work picking up the copy of Burroughs’ ‘Exterminator!’ that was sitting on my desk, reading the first few lines, and handing it back to me, with a look on her face that suggested she thought I’d lost my mind.
After two years of office life, I enrolled in a Graphic Design course, and got heavily into Surrealist painters, Bauhaus designers, Marshall McLuhan and then-fashionable designers like David Carson and Émigré. I also fell in with a bohemian crowd and decided I wanted to be an artist. So, once I’d graduated as a designer, I spent another three years studying sculpture at The National Art School (NAS). I wrote essays about Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, and the Australian Surrealist painters of the 30s and 40s. I also got very caught up in the Britpop wars, and began to see parallels between the lyrics of Pulp’s Different Class and Blur’s The Great Escape, and some of the stuff about art, leisure, class and society that they were teaching us in art theory. But the essay I wrote about all this was not very good, because all my time and energy was being spent making a giant pink rabbit out of plywood and starting an experimental tape-loop cabaret band (see below).
I saw out what was left of the 90s trying to make it as an artist – working out of a single-car garage with a radio blasting out classic hits all day, putting on exhibitions in empty office spaces, pubs and car parks. To pay for the paint and the plywood, I worked as an ‘attractions host’ at the ill-fated Titanic Experience at Sydney’s Fox Studios theme park (I know, ‘Titanic’… ‘ill-fated… you’d never see that coming, would you?). My job was to sit in a dark cupboard and press a button every half an hour that made Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ start playing in the gift shop. I learned to bring a torch and a good book to work, and continued my education in the re-creation of the boiler room based on the boiler room in James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’. In this way, I learned everything I needed to know about post-modernity.
So, what does he do…
I’m a writer, a radio producer, a public speaker and, more recently – a museum curator. I use words, sounds, music, images and objects to tell stories about the history of music, art, literature and philosophy. I see my job as to expand the timeline of rock and roll history – which tends to be written about as though it emerged from nowhere in 1954. Along with its African lineage, rock and roll has inherited a thousand year old European tradition of art and ideas which includes everything from Plato to Pop Art, John Keats to John Cage, Fra Angelico to Fluxus. You know in the movie ‘24 Hour Party People’ where Steve Coogan (as Tony Wilson) compares Shaun Ryder to Yeats and the Sex Pistols’ first gig in Manchester to the French Revolution? It’s funny, but also exciting, because we’re not used to thinking of rock in that context. But to Matthew Arnold, writing in the mid-19th century, there was nothing odd about comparing Wordsworth to Homer, even though the two were separated in time by many centuries. Arnold saw both writers as part of a tradition – and that’s how I see music today.
It’s funny, I started looking for connections between, say, Kurt Cobain and James Joyce, because I knew people who liked Nirvana would find Joyce easier to understand and enjoy if they could see how they were related. But I think what I discovered in the process – that Joyce can help us understand Nirvana – was even more useful.
How did he learn to do it all…
I learned how to be a radio broadcaster by being a radio broadcaster. In 1998, I started volunteering at a community station in Sydney called 2SER FM. My friend Mark Shorter and I inherited a Thursday night ‘What’s on in Sydney’ show, and then later took on the station’s weekend arts programme. We had no real idea what we were doing, but we were really excited about art and music, and shared a sort of Punk-meets-Fluxus idea that this stuff might not be as mysterious and romantic as artists (and the people who are paid to promote their work) sometimes like to make out.
At the time, we were both at art school, which we loved – but there always seemed to be this weird gap between what people were doing and what they said they were doing. What they were doing (what we were doing also) was basically working hard and having fun. We’d wake up every morning and go to school in this beautiful old sandstone colonial building in the middle of this nice boho-chic neighbourhood called Darlinghurst. We’d walk around the streets and rummage through the op-shops looking for materials, and then drag it all back to the studio and start sticking it together – building it up, tearing it down, pouring paint on it, casting it in plastic or plaster or bronze, until some cute girl from the painting class next door said ‘wow, that looks amazing’. We’d get interested in things nobody else could be expected to care about – door frames, cockroaches, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, rabbits, the poster advertising Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Hamlet – and make big pop-art paintings and sculptures about them, and just keep making them until they looked really, really good.
So in some ways making art seemed quite simple (if not always easy to do). But when people had to talk about it, it got confusing. Our teachers would talk a lot about ‘form’ and ‘formal relations’, which suggested that there was some ideal relation of planes, lines and colours, some perfect shape out there to which all painters and sculptors should aspire. It was appealing, because it suggested there were rules – but no-one could ever really explain what they were. They seemed to change from one case to another, so a lot of arguments with our teachers seemed to end with some version of the phrase ‘because I said so’. We came away feeling that formalism was a crock – for these reasons, but also because it seemed depressingly divorced from reality.
Meanwhile, outside of the confines of the sandstone walls, was the world of academic art theory – the stuff they taught at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) down the road. This art-speak, I’ll admit, seemed mysterious and sexy to me for a little while, mouthed, as it was, by black-clad scenesters in trendy galleries with black-on-white helvetica logos and multimedia video art on the walls. But it was so confusing! Not only that, it seemed, more and more, as though its purpose was to confuse people, to make modern art seem more complicated and mysterious than it actually was, thus preventing people who might potentially like it from even setting foot in the gallery. And the more artists I met, the more I started to think this was true. Their catalogue essays were full of obscure jargon and references to French philosophers. But when you spoke to them about their work, they were more likely to talk about power tools or Metallica albums of the 80s or how much fun it is to wreck old TVs with powerful electromagnets.
Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t then, nor am I now, anti-theory. I love art theory, and I think it’s really important that artists, audiences and critics have serious discussions about art. But I think Mark and I felt very strongly that both of the current options – the obscure formalism of the NAS and the obscure academy-talk of COFA, were not doing the job very well. The third option, for us, was presented by writers like Robert Hughes (who we loved) and John McDonald (who we thought we hated, and later realised we liked). Writers who know history like the back of their hand, know a good formal relationship when they see one, and eat art theory for breakfast, but (and this is the crucial thing) use all of these things to enlighten, rather than confuse their audience. And they told jokes.
So that’s how I learned to talk about art, music and literature on the radio. First with Mark, and then later – when he went overseas – by myself on 2SER, and then as a guest on triple j from about 1999 onwards. In every case, I tried first to explain the thing I was looking at to myself, without recourse to the press release or the fashionable jargon. I figured if I could do that, then I could explain it to an audience. I used examples I knew people could relate to, and tried always to avoid the pitfalls of formalism by showing how the book, or the song or the show was connected to history and society.
So I learned radio by doing radio, and I learned writing the same way. The first Culture Club segment went to air in June 2001, after Steve Cannane, who was producing the morning show at the time, asked me to do a regular 10 minute spot about the history of art and ideas. I was very nervous, because it was my first prime-time gig on the station, and because I really admired the station’s presenter, Francis Leach. So I prepared heaps of material – pages and pages of facts and notes and ideas. Then, when the red light went on, I leaned into the microphone and talked for ten minutes about Monet’s haystacks, got fatally mixed up halfway through in an obscure metaphor about John Farnham’s hair, forgot what I was talking about and made a complete goose of myself.
I basically thought my radio career was over, but my friend Cath Dwyer consoled me (while leaving me in no doubt that I had, as I suspected, fucked it up), and gave me precious advice. “All good radio”, she said, “is written”. She didn’t mean you have to write down everything you’re going to say, but you need a plan – not a random pile of notes like I had, but a structure – a story you want to tell, or a point you want to make, a good start that will get the audience interested, an idea of how you’d like to tell the story, and an idea of where you’d like to end up. After that, the segment was great, because I took Cath’s advice to heart and got in the habit of writing a little informal essay before each show, in the form of an email to Steve and Francis, on what my spot that week would be about. I found that not only did it make the segment go better, it made my brain work better. Writing is thinking – it’s a way of organising your thoughts, of subjecting half-formed ideas to the cold light of reason. Sitting there on the page, you can decide for yourself whether they’re great insights or pretentious waffle, before you say them out of your mouth and into a microphone.
These little essays were the only real writing I’d done at the point (in 2005) when ABC books approached me about writing a book. I was naturally very nervous about having to write 80,000 words, but I had the idea that the same principle I applied in preparing my radio segments ought to serve me well for the book – and this turned out, by and large, to be true.
What was he like as a child…
Well, I spent a lot of time drawing and making up stories when I was a kid and it became increasingly difficult for anyone to get me to do anything else! I think of myself as similar now – my ideal state is to be creating something. I’m very grateful to my parents for encouraging me in that area because I know that, like a lot of people, I’ve gone through phases in my life where I’d tricked myself into thinking that the cure for modern boredom was entertainment – you know, more movies, more music, more magazines, more DVD box sets. My childhood prepared me for the notion that entertainment is the cause of boredom – not the opposite. Boredom, to me, is a signal that I should be creating something.
What gave him the confidence to get into what he’s doing…
Nothing really! My professional life, up until about 2007, was dominated by the idea (which I’ve found quite a lot of people have about themselves) that I wasn’t really good at anything, but that I had somehow blagged my way into the position of producing a radio show or writing a book or giving a public lecture, and had better figure out how to do it in time for the gig! It came as a huge shock to me, a couple of years ago, to wake up one morning and realise I had actual skills.
What is he up to at the moment…
Right now, I’m writing a new book, which will be published by Harper Collins in late 2011. It’s called Entertain Us, and it’s a cultural history of rock and roll in the 1990s. The idea came to me one day at work, at the triple j studios in Ultimo, Sydney, when I was looking for some blank or recycled reel-to-reel tapes to try out an effect I’d been reading about. I found myself in a disused voiceover booth full of old tapes which I assumed at first must be for recycling. Then I looked again at the labels on the side – Kim Gordon, Henry Rollins, Nick Cave, Pixies, Mazzy Star, My Bloody Valentine, Jarvis Cocker, Jeff Buckley – and realised I was looking at the station’s archive of music interviews from the 90s. I started thinking about how great it would be to listen to all these, and to find a way of presenting them on the radio, a way of telling a story about music in the 90s using the material recorded at triple j during the period. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the story was much bigger than could be contained by a series of radio spots, that it was a book – and potentially a really good book.
As I started talking to friends about this idea, I noticed how nostalgic people were becoming for early 90s rock, and nostalgia is always interesting. The German historian, Walter Benjamin, used to talk about ‘the promises of the past’, and that’s the phrase that’s always in the back of my mind as I write this book.
Pros and cons of his work…
What I like is that what I do helps me understand the world, and helps me become more conscious of what goes on around me, the things I do, the decisions I make, and the way I behave. I can’t stress enough how important this has been to me. The more I learn about history, the more I realise that most of the things we take for granted, that we accept as somehow ‘natural’ or at least inevitable, are in fact quite recent, that everything has changed over time, and the only thing that’s certain is that it will change again. For example, while researching my last book, I ended up reading a lot of Romantic poetry, and I realised that the romantic’s vision of love – overwhelming, uncontrollable and potentially fatal – is essentially the same as the one expounded in pop hits and Hollywood blockbusters. As such, it’s an idea that we all, to some extent, subscribe to – the notion that love is a raging uncontrollable force has been elevated to a kind of modern common-sense! But it’s also an idea with very specific historical roots in European pagan cultures suppressed by the church, whose beliefs and stories were sublimated into poetry. It’s as far away as it’s possible to get from the idea of love endorsed by the church and the modern state – a voluntary union, an agreement between people who have decided to build a home and raise a family and do their tax return together ‘til death do us part’. As Denis De Rougemont points out in Passion and Society, you only have to try to imagine Tristan doing the grocery shopping with Isolde to realise that the two ideas are incompatible! And yet everybody I know accepts that it’s their lot in life to have to reconcile the two, to be carried away by a raging torrent of passion one minute and then settle down and lead a normal life the next. Just realising that this is kind of absurd, and in no way ‘natural’, has made my life much less confusing.
It’s a lot like the arguments about eating or not eating meat, which, as a vegetarian, I find myself getting involved in quite often. People often say things like ‘but human beings have been eating meat for centuries’. Just because people have been doing it for a long time, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea! And I’ve been trying to keep this historical perspective in mind as I write my new book, which has been very useful, because rock history is full of truisms – often unstated, but accepted by everyone. Artists must always live outside of society, Music will never really change the world, money will always compromise ideals, art will always promise things it can’t deliver. All of these ‘facts of life’ are the result of relatively recent developments, there’s no reason to think they’ll still hold true a hundred years from now. As Adorno once wrote, ‘today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking’.
There’s nothing I really dislike about what I do, except that I have trouble remembering things, and I wish I had a sort of external hard drive for my memory where I could keep things that don’t fit in the main brain. But I guess that’s what notebooks are for.
Did his early environment affect his life choices…
I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood of one of the world’s more expensive cities, and I believe that had a lot to do with my life choices! I grew up with the idea that there was usually some money, and some time, to spare. Not a lot of money – my dad was a shopkeeper, not a lawyer, and had (and still has) a very frugal attitude towards money. But there was never a question of going hungry or getting kicked out of our house, or even of not going to the movies or out to dinner once a week. There were always holidays, always new toys to play with, always new time-saving gadgets for the kitchen. And of course, time-saving gadgets leave you with more spare time, and spare time leads to boredom, which is usually the point at which you reach for the remote or the shopping catalogue or holiday brochure.
But as I mentioned before, for some reason that circuit of boredom and entertainment was broken for me at quite an early age, which meant that I tended to explore boredom rather than block it out, to ask myself why my life (which in theory had nothing wrong with it at all) seemed unsatisfying, and to slowly draw conclusions from this. I guess this is why I’ve always seen boredom as potentially revolutionary. It’s like that moment in Green Day’s ‘Long View’, where he’s singing about how bored and unmoved he is by his dumb house with its dumb furniture and the dumb TV show he’s watching. He changes the channel, hoping there’ll be something on, and soon realises that there’s nothing on – and that there never was, or will be. He explodes in punk-rock fury at the total crap-ness of modern life, and suddenly neither he, nor you – the listener – are bored anymore. I really think it was moments like that that shaped me. You know when you’ve spent too long at the shopping mall on a Saturday? You’ve been walking around there all day, shopping. Then, you realise you’ve run out of money, so it all becomes uninteresting. But your friend is still trying on clothes, so you’re waiting there on one of those courtesy benches, and you end up spending far too long just looking at the one spot, focusing on some infuriatingly banal little air-conditioning panel. Or some weirdly out-of-date hairstyle on a poster in the window. Basically, you start to notice how crap everything is, and then you start to wonder why. I mean, answering that question satisfactorily could be a life’s work – and not a bad one either!
Did he get much encouragement…
My mother especially has always been great – she’s a painter, and I think we’ve always had a very basic sympathy there. She finds it quite hard to paint, because she’s such a perfectionist. But I know how much she enjoys it when she does it, and how satisfying it is when it comes out well. I think that’s why she and my dad were always so encouraging towards me – even when I was doing things that must have been totally inexplicable to them, like starting a tape-loop art-noise band or spray-painting cryptic revolutionary slogans on the streets of Sydney’s inner west. They knew it was creative work, and they knew from Mum’s experience that creativity is somehow valuable in itself.
What’s his family like…
When my sister and I were kids, my mum was a commercial artist – she painted the pictures of fruit that appeared on the labels of Cottees’ jams in the early 80s, and thus defined the ideal strawberry for an entire generation of Australians. She also painted a huge pop-art rainbow on the wall of my sister’s room.
My dad loves music, jazz especially. He used to have a small record collection, which included Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Pendulum’, an album of movie themes played by Oscar Peterson, and a copy of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. They first gave me my first taste of rock and roll’s participation mystique – I remember being slightly freaked out, as a kid, by the bearded faces on the cover, but also very much wanting to step through the looking glass and find out what kind of crazy sepia-tinted world they were living in. The second I don’t remember listening to, but inherited about ten years ago, and have since sampled obsessively and compulsively in my work as a radio producer. The third is still one of my favourite albums, and gave me a taste for romantic bombast, weird avant-garde shit, and the idea that both are somehow connected with the boundless ambition and ultimate foolishness of human beings, all of which have stayed with me to this day.
The best advice he ever received…
It wasn’t so much good advice, as a good question. In 1991, I had a job as a junior clerk at a Barristers’ chambers in Sydney. I wore a cheap suit and ran errands for lawyers who were hard at work defending disgraced entrepreneurs of the late eighties. As I pushed trolleys full of legal documents up and down Martin Place, I listened to alternative rock on my Walkman. The irony of this hadn’t escaped me. In fact, like many of the singers I was listening to, I lived on a fairly steady diet of the stuff. One day I was pushing my trolley along, listening to Ministry’s Jesus Built My Hotrod, when my friend Arthur Lawrence – who had taught me art history – stopped me in the street, yanked the headphones out of my ears, and said, ‘What the fuck are you DOING?’
Craig’s Real Life Top Ten…
1. Baking biscuits
2. Second-hand bookshops
3. Cats (I am quite allergic, but have never held that against them)
4. Pencils with erasers on the end
5. People who work in hotels saying “enjoy your stay”
6. Saying “what do you recommend?” in restaurants
10. Underground railways
I collect books and records, always for the same reason – curiousity. I have a fairly big collection of LPs, but I’m not one of those people who buys things because they’re rare or out of print or valuable. Every single one was bought because I believed, at the time, that I would experience some kind of revelation shortly after I put the needle down on the record – that I would hear something I’d never heard before, or that a piece of music history’s puzzle would fall into place, or that I’d finally understand why people were always going on about whatever it was I’d just brought home. It’s the same with books. I always buy them with the idea, the hope, that I’m about to learn something new.
How does he get out of an inspiration rut…
It depends. If I’m stuck, it’s generally for one of two reasons. It could be that I don’t know enough – that I hate what I’m writing because it sounds vague and pretentious, and that’s usually because I haven’t done enough research to build a convincing argument. In those situations, I pull a whole lot of books off the shelf, turn my phone off, and read until I feel I have something I can confidently talk about. The other reason is the exact opposite of the first – I’m paralysed by indecision, because I’ve read so much, collected so much material, that I have no idea where to begin. In those moments, I look at the wall above my desk where I’ve posted a favourite quote from my favourite book – William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ – “As one judge said to another, ‘be just, and if you can’t be just, be arbitrary’.” That usually helps.
How does he unwind…
I cook. Creative work is fun, and often very rewarding. But it’s also a bit hit-or-miss. Sometimes, you do all the right things – write a good script, put the microphone in the right place, choose a bunch of really great songs and a couple of really choice quotes from old interviews, and then work really hard all day putting it together and still end up with something you wouldn’t consider putting on air in a million years. Cooking is also creative and fun, but it has the advantage of being much more dependable. In my experience, if you start with good ingredients and a good recipe, and pay attention to what you’re doing, don’t rush anything, it always turns out great, and puts a smile on the faces of the people you love. That’s a good way to end the day.
If he could turn back time…
Recently, I applied for a one year visa to live and work in Germany. I got it, but it was touch and go for a minute. The woman who interviewed me was friendly and kind, but was also – like most bureaucrats, a stickler for the rules. The rules are that if you say you’re a writer, you’d better have some kind of piece of paper with a fancy-looking seal on it that says you’re qualified to write. So I did have a moment there, as Frau Wieland peered over her halfmoon spectacles at me, and I stammered like Jeff Bridges in the back seat of The Big Lebowski’s limo, where I really wished I’d done some kind of degree, or at least finished high school. But it was only a moment.
Well, apart from the book, I’ve launched my website craigschuftan.com. I’m preparing some talks for City of Literature in Edinburgh this year, and working on a collaboration with students from the University of Pop Culture in the Netherlands. Also, my friend Olga and I are starting a synth-pop, drone-rock band, called ‘Zelda’.
My wife and I got married at the Elvis Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2007 – I promised never to leave her at Heartbreak Hotel, she promised never to step on my Blue Suede Shoes. Then, a little later, we made an amendment – a non Elvis-themed additional vow, that we would get more radical as we got older. So that’s my hope – that I’ll do in life what Tom Waits has managed to do in music, to get, as Thom Yorke once put it “more and more off the fuckin’ wall” as time goes by.
Acceptable in the 80s – a radio and podcast series for triple j, the Culture Club podcast, my most recent book, Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone!, an interview with Zan Rowe, about rock and roll, emo and the romantic movement and my twitter feed @schuftronic