Malcolm Mooney „I’m a working man, not a celebrity.“

Malcolm Mooney (Photo: Thomas Venker)

And what was supposed to be the day before the opening of his exhibition „Can Yoo Doo Right“ at Max Mayer Gallery, Thomas Venker met Malcolm Mooney in Düsseldorf for a long conversation touching base with his current art works as well as past and present music collaborations with Can, Ava Mendoza and Steve Shelley to name just a few. 

The exhibition had to be postponed sadly till late November because of customs issues. So Mooney’s mood was a bit off beat at first (and who are we to blame him). But in the end we talked for over 90 minutes about the beauty and struggle of being an artist.

Later that day Malcolm Mooney – with the band Montel Palmer – would deliver an incredible performance at Jaki Club in Cologne. It was rather hard to believe that they had just one, brief rehearsal for this show.

Malcolm Mooney: Are we okay? You’re gonna use this for what reason?

I run a magazine, called Kaput – Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop.

Kaput? Like destroy?

Malcolm, we are in North Rhine Westphalia, in Dusseldorf, very close to Cologne. It’s a region you’ve been connected with for a very, very long time, but you haven’t always lived here. So how does it feel to return?

I feel very disappointed. Just about what’s happened with the show. But I’ve just met some very wonderful musicians online. We had our first conversation about what we’re going to do on on Saturday. We might have a rehearsal Friday. And we’ll definitely have a rehearsal before the show.

What happened with your exhibition?

A hold-up with the with the works at the customs has caused me a very bad feeling, and I’m trying to get over, get past that because it’s just not a good feeling.

Yeah, I totally hear you. You do everything you can – and then bureaucratic things stop you. It’s the worst of all feelings. It’s the opposite of the creative process, right?

Yes, I think so.

Especially for somebody like you whose art and and life was always about, like, reacting on situations.

I’m not sure about what has happened. That’s the problem. I was just telling my wife it has a bad taste. It’s just not what I had expected. Maybe I should have expected it. But I was very happy talking to the band members. I mean, something can go wrong there too…

Which band are we talking about?

It is Montel Palmer. And a number of his people.

Are you, are you still doing a lot of music stuff too these days?

Yeah, I have a band – or they have me. I’ve done two recordings that are on Bandcamp with Ava Mendoza. She’s also part of the group I have a part in, called The Eleventh Planet, which is Ava Mendoza on guitar, Steve Shelley on drums, Alexis Marcelo on keyboard, Daniel Moreno on percussion.

Wow, how could I miss that band? I guess I was so focused on your paintings. Ava played the Monheim Triennale that I co-curate in 2021 and 2022.

Is that right? Yeah, she’s fantastic.

And super lovely as a person.

Yeah, that too. So, and Ava and I did a a Bandcamp thing: Motherless Children. And with the band that I just mentioned, we recorded two records in 2019 at Sonic Youth’s studios in New Jersey. We had to stop production because of the pandemic — but we recorded about 16 tracks. I’ve mixed like three of the pieces so far …
I also have my teaching career, I teach at the Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada, and and my painting career, which just goes along with my teaching career.
You could say, things are going well – and then I travel 9,000 miles or kilometres or whatever and something like this happen. It’s sort of well, I’ll leave it this way. I think if the upside of this will be the music…
Well, it was good to meet May Mayer (who runs the gallery the exhibition was scheduled at) and the curator Saim Demircan, who already curated my show at Aspen Art Museum.

Well, on a positive note. You never know what this will lead to, right? That’s the magic of life. One second of something can change the directions totally. So in a way, what you now think maybe is a very negative moment in your life, maybe leads to an absolute highlight.

That could be. That could be. Yeah.

Also, I’m pretty sure it’s not the first time in your life something like that happened. Like a big bummer instead of something you expect to be a highlight, right?

Well I didn’t expect it to be a highlight. To be honest with you, I believe more and more that I’m a working man and not a celebrity. I think all artists are – if they think correctly – working people. 
In the band I assume the role of leader. But that doesn’t necessarily make any sense. It’s a cooperative effort most of the time that I work with bands or they work with me. This is a hard one to be open to. I hadn’t planned on doing a gig in Cologne. It just happened. Just like this art show not happening.

Your work was always about improvisation, about reacting to situations. But then again, there’s shows like this and trips like that and teaching and all those things in life, so planning suddenly becomes also a part of life.

But I still do it. I still improvise. And I’m trying, at the present time, I’m trying to improvise from this particular moment – it’s just a matter of asking ‘how does one improvise in the moment?“

Well, maybe that leads to the next question coming to my mind: what are you searching for in art? In general, in music, in paintings … what are you trying to get out of the process?

I think all of my art is basically improvised. I have a series now that I’m doing called „the poured series“. And I had thought about naming the art show „What!“ It’s W H A T exclamation point! 
I do these pours. And they become automatic in a way. They become what is old talk – for some Europeans, I suppose an artistic reference. But I do these pours, and then from these pours I have to invent. I can direct the pour just a little bit. But when the pours finish and dry, I then go back into them and find some elements that I think might be RAM. You know, access, memory. It might be that. In fact, I even believe that the whole idea, the concept of art and art history is a continuum….

I’m not the end at all. I’m just somewhere in the midst of the cave paintings and AI. I’m somewhere in that midst, but I have an idea – not that I can talk about it, it’s an idea that happens with the image, and as far as I know, as far as I understand, it It only comes about when it’s a visual. So it only comes about through whenever I know to be true.

I’m an abstract painter – I think Picasso said: „you might be an abstract painter, but it’s always coming from something that you actually saw physically there.“ You know, the bottle here on front of us exists on this table, but you can abstract it, you can make it abstract, just take the top off and move it to the side, and build it different, make something that’s a straight line, that’s linear to curvilinear …

I’ve been using those same information that’s been built over the last 500 years to do what I’m doing as an artist. I wrote a paper years ago in art history when I was in undergraduate school. I said, nothing’s new in the history of art. The art history professor gave me a ‘D’. And then I wrote the same thing when I was in graduate school and I got an ‘A’. So time does do things. I mean, there’s nothing really, but as artists, we start off trying to find something new.

Maybe you will find something new on that journey, you know, but the question is: what is art and why are we doing art? Today in our society, a lot of people rather want to have the result of art, which means the success coming through art, the final piece. While a lot of artists, myself included, really love the process. They don’t accept too easy that the process is over, while people who want to have the results, they want to bypass the process, because they want to have the result. Which means, mostly, most people want to have the fame these days, the stardom.
We always needed artists to take a risk, but these days, normal people also taking a risk, because life is such a challenge. So, these whole society constructions change in that way.

And what does that mean for the art?

Good point. So prior to cell phones, let’s say not everyone was taking pictures. But with the advent of cell phones, everybody’s taking pictures. And they’re taking pictures thinking that they are photographers, some of them at least. It’s not learning the history of the process. It’s not learning where it started.
I mean, a number of people out there who call themselves artists because they have a paintbrush, a sculptor tool or an engraving tool never studied anybody and just think they can just jump into it and do it. There’s some young folks who call themselves artists who don’t know what the trip is.

I always believed that there should be space in a painting. You know, Sun Ra space. Space is the place. How do I go there? Somewhere in this painting, there needs to be distance between the foreground and the background. I don’t care if it’s abstract or not, but somehow I want something. This is just me, I want something that gives me an idea that this canvas is not just flat. I’m always looking for that way to to make the canvas have a recessive and dominant idea in it. Because why would I paint on a canvas? If it’s a flat surface, I still want to believe that’s there’s something that shows the energy in the painting besides the surface.

When I am listening and watching you improvising music on a stage, it feels to me like I am experienced this freedom very clearly myself. If I would stand in your studio next to you painting, would I also be able to experience a similar deepness of ongoing improvisation?

Good question. Well, there’s a magic that can come by visually watching an artist do what they’re doing. And usually I’m playing music when I’m doing my painting. But, I don’t know where to go with that one.

I think the sound of something generates a vibration. On the visual side, I think the same thing can happen. But it’s something on the wavelength, it’s on the colour wavelength I guess if you were to watch me do it, you might throw up your hands and run out the room. I don’t know. I get a big kick out of it.

The only problem I have with painting these days, and I wish I didn’t have it, was I paint with oils. And the problem I have with oils is the toxicity.

Musicians can always go back to edit and tweak what they had, but with paintings the next step kinda eliminates what’s come before.

It’s done. I just read this piece by Philip Guston. The interviewer was asking him, „How do you know when a painting is finished?“ – And he said that it „just comes about“. It may be that you you don’t know when it’s coming.

Okay. In music, there are cues, you know. I did a piece with this young man named Mason Webb. He’s playing the sewing machine, and I’m supposed to be doing some sounds over it, you know, some reading and stuff. And at one point during the concert Mason had come to the point, in my eyes, where he had come to the end. And I knew it was the end. I’m a little older than he is, my sensibilities said: that’s the end of the piece. But Mason didn’t catch that. He’s much younger. He’s in his twenties. And he went on.

In the art, you have a chance, because there’s no audience, you have a chance to put the work away. You walk away from the work. I do. I walk away from the work. And I’ll look at it as I walk away, and I’ll say, „Okay, I’ll come back tomorrow.“
This piece by Philip Guston, though, is kind of interesting because this whole thing about walking away from the painting and thinking that there’s a tomorrow, but he says: „You have to do it then. Because the tomorrow is not a given.” 
I think I’m, I’m not the Guston. I’m the Mooney. I believe that, I know there’s not gonna be a day when I’ll be able to do this. But I keep believing that it won’t be tomorrow.

So here we are, in the middle of the discussion of the legacy of CAN – and also the financial aspects connected with this.

Oh. If you mention that, you’re journeying into territory.

Yeah. I mean the magazine I run is named Kaput – Magazin für Insolvenz & Pop. It is always a question I am interested in: does an artist feel they are fairly compensated by life, society, his mates. Do you?

I feel somewhat disappointed. Not that I am disappointed about the music of CAN. You know, it’s about the music business. Put it that way: it hasn’t been easy. I have no idea how many people are actually involved with CAN. All I know is that at some point I, you know, it’s not right, the business of CAN is a family business. I don’t know much else to say about it.

You don’t have to. Let’s talk about programming an exhibition like now in Düsseldorf. With music, there is always the music catalogue around, but with paintings, some of your works are here, some are there, with collectors, museums, wherever…. that has an impact of what you could include in an exhibition. So logistically an exhibition is much more difficult than a set list for a concert.

But in this case, it’s the curator and the director, not me, who made the choices. We provided the curator and director the images via JPEGs. And they are the ones that selected the works to go in there. And so the works that were supposed to be in the show were from 1970 to 2022. 
Most of the time I’ve been shown a group of work from the year. But this is like a culmination of them.
I think their selection was very good. But I think after what happened to me today I’m still in disbelief. The idea that all of it came tumbling down. It’s caused me to doubt, I guess that’s the right word. So I won’t go any further with ‘doubt’, but I know that was the key factor for a number of hours. Maybe the beer helps, you know.

So you think maybe if the show happens in the fall, it’s going to look different because so much is going to…

No, if the show comes off in the fall, it’ll be good. I mean the show, it’ll be the same show.

Let’s go back to my question: how does it feel for you to revisit old paintings? Do you feel like a lot of them retain their inner core topics and themes?

Something here?
What’s your favorite CAN song?

I can’t really say, the band always felt to me like an environment and not just songs.

Did you ever see CAN live?

No. I just saw Jaki Liebzeit play drums, because he lived until the end here in Cologne.

Anyway, what was the question?

I was interested if you feel that the essence of your art is kind of stable or if it changes over time?

Over time? Oh yeah. Well, I don’t know about the essence of the work, but I still think I have within me what drives it.
I mean, I could have stopped painting, but I couldn’t, you know and I don’t know if it’s because, like a friend of mine says, I’m getting old and this job is bothering me a great deal.

There’s no guarantee in music making a living. It’s not like the guy that’s driving the train. It’s a crazy choice you make. You know, it’s a choice. I mean, I teach. I don’t make much money teaching right now. I mean, I don’t even know if I’m teaching. I’m an instructor. But, you know my students, they come to class. Some of them have ideas, some of them don’t. And the ones that don’t, I try to provide some direction.

For the next minutes he talks about teaching and particular students and their talents.

And I believe in the writer, I think the writer, is very important.

Thanks, appreciated. That’s what a lot of younger artists, especially musicians, don’t see anymore. Because that’s what changed over the last decades with like internet, social media… People in general and also artists lost the belief that a writer can help form something, can open a dialogue with their works.

Well, Nat Hentoff, who else did I read? Oh God, I forget the names of people.

Let’s change subject. Who would have been your dream combination on stage for improvisations?

There are artists that I like a great deal, ones who I like what they’ve done or are doing. But I never thought about working with them. 
I mean both of these groups that I’ve been with, the 10th and the 11th Planet, they wanted to work with me. 
I mean, that’s the same thing I’ve said about my art. I’m not looking for anybody to show my work. I want somebody to come to me who wants my work.

Like the young people I’m working with on this show in Cologne, Montel Palmer. I didn’t know them. I had a conversation with them just before you came online. And they felt good to talk with. Neither they nor I know what we’re gonna be able to do.

I mean like the band that I’ve been playing with in New York, I want to give them more money. I never make enough money.

I love playing, we do the gig, I get a certain amount of money from the venue. So I’ve asked my manager to ask for much more money. By the time I fly in to New York from Calgary, I’ve already spent 1.500$, I get rehearsal space, that’s another 600$… I try to give them as much money as I can from the top. So I come home with 25 $. No way, I can’t do it.

He keeps talking about paying the band fair, record companies, the music business…

What is value? To the music industry value is making a profit, but then again… Which is also a great word: profit.

One of my friends said, „Why would I play Duke Ellington’s music when I’m writing my own music?“ I get paid. I don’t need to help Duke make any money. 
You know what I mean? I mean, you’re playing… And I’m doing it now, and I guess CAN gets a piece of what I’m doing.


But you also get money for the CAN songs you co-wrote, right?

Right, so I get paid out of that too. But there’s no need of me trying to do the Velvet Underground, or to do Devo or somebody. 
I don’t even think about getting paid for doing this stuff. That’s the other part. That might be my problem. I’m trying to sort of adjust my lyrics that I wrote, because it says on the albums, „music and lyrics by CAN“. For most of the albums – except for „Right Time“ – the lyrics weren’t done by hand, you know.

That’s how many bands handle their copyrights. Also Sonic Youth, the former band of your friend and collaborator Steve Shelley, they also shared all rights equally. Which is nice as long as the band exists, in the moment the band does not exist anymore, it gets tricky…

Well, the other thing about it is, that might be true, but If you don’t know that to start. See, I didn’t know there’s a lyric share or a composer share. I didn’t know anything about that. So if you go in blind, that’s one thing, but if you, I mean, I didn’t find out about that until I spoke to a friend of mine who’s in the music business and he was telling me that the composer shares and the lyricists shares, are two different shares. And I didn’t know that. So in fact, only on one album that CAN did, it’s stated that the lyrics are by Malcolm Mooney.


I mean, on the CAN Anthology album, there’s a picture. On the first anthology album, I’m on the on the picture, on the cover. On the second one, I’m not on the cover. So I said, I got smart assed and I said: „Well, is that because you’re trying to sell the product in Alabama? Or in the United States? In the South? In some place that might not want a black person on the cover?“ (…) So I said, „well, if you can Photoshop me out, you can Photoshop Damo Suzuki in.“ You know, that was my fault, you know. But, you know, these are things that have happened over the years, and I don’t know, I can tell the truth of things that I feel. That’s it. 
I think that’s what parts of the art and the business of art.

When was the point that you realised „this could be my career“, like art and music together.

I don’t regret it, no. I think, I would be very sad if I got a job as a Stern Bond driver.
I didn’t have any idea. I grew up in my father’s shop. What was that? He was a stereographer. He was a silkscreen printer. And for years, he would buy my supplies for me. I mean, he said to me one time, I was coming, I was painting in junior high school art class, and the teacher, she had us painting on this manila paper – manila paper has a slick finish, does not absorb water, basically. And you know, you’re painting on this thing and trying to make… 
And then my father said, „wait a minute, I’m going to give you a piece of watercolour paper, and I’m going to give you this sable brush. See what you can do with this.”
And the idea of what this teacher was trying to teach us compared to what my father showed me… you start to realise that, wait a minute, this teacher must be not getting enough money for supplies. Because what we’re doing with Manila paper is not happening, that’s not going to do it.

Malcolm Mooney (Photo: Thomas Venker)

Malcolm Mooney changes the topic and talks suddenly about some of the work in the Düsseldorf exhibition.

In the gallery show, one of the pieces is called „Long Tongues“. And „Long Tongues“ is actually made from a seed spreader. And in fact the curator was asking me what that was, he was talking about the handle on the side of the, which could be referred to as an ear. But I said, „what is this thing?“ Well, if you look at it carefully, it’s actually a seed spreader. Or a something that spreads the the fertilizer or seed on the ground. And you wind it up, you hold it in your hand, you wind it, and it spreads the seed.
And so one piece is called „Walkman“. It’s from a walk that I decided to make into a head. And I have it so that at the last minute I said, maybe I better put the head on, a face on both sides of the walk. As eyebrows, beards, you know. The idea of it might be from the data, it might be from from bottle rack or the toilet bowl, I mean, the urinal.
You mention your father giving you supplies – so your parents liked the idea of you becoming an artist?
Yeah, my father… he died early. He died at 58. But he was very helpful. I mean, he was a hard person to deal with. A hard taskmaster, but he was into the art idea.
He used to do prints for artists in New York City. I think he wanted to be an artist, you know. He used to supply me with with paints and and ideas. We worked together on one piece that was in the Ulrich Gallery show, which is called „Harlem Angel“. It’s a six colour silk screen print.

And a close friend of mine, Ryan Statz, who’s a printmaker in in Calgary. He reprinted the series and he did a beautiful job of it. So I reproduced the series that my father and I made.

Thanks so much for this talk.

Thank you for your time and conversation, especially today. We’ll see what happens.

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