Alex Turnbull Interview19/03/2012
The Stussy International Tribe concept and movement has throughout my career and earlier in my youth played a massive role in the way I saw street culture, and why I was so attracted to it. The concept is still very much at the heart of what I do today whether it be with my own projects or with external clients. Alex "Baby" Turnbull was an influencer before their was such a word, as one of the original members of the Stussy International Tribe, Alex has played a huge role in the history of Stussy. An ex-skater born and bred in London, Alex is a drummer and percussionist for the infamous sound experimentalists 23 Skidoo and founded one of the UK’s first hip-hop labels Ronin Records, along with his brother Johnny.
His journey on the wheels of steel began back in 1983 and since that time Alex has become one of London’s most recognized and well-respected DJs. Not limited to just skate and music, Alex’s martial arts skills were displayed (he has studied the art form for over 30 years) on a special tee called Secret Technique Keeper, produced by Stussy NY in 2001. His history with Stussy and the Tribe runs back to the early days when he was introduced to Shawn Stussy by former creative director, Paul Mittleman. In fact, it was Shawn who came up with the DJ moniker ‘Alex Baby’ which was inspired by an early mixtape Alex sent him. “Stussy is the blueprint for modern day streetwear,” says Turnbull. “They were the first to sponsor and support musicians and artists.”
These days you can find Alex behind the lens as a filmmaker. His new film titled Beyond Time is a documentary about the history of post war modern art viewed through the life and work of his father pioneering British Modernist, William Turnbull. The film features a soundtrack by 23 Skidoo and is narrated by actor Jude Law.
Angela Bevan: What has been your favorite reaction to your recent film, Beyond Time?
Alex Turnbull: We began work on the film in 2006. My co-director Pete Stern and I felt a huge responsibility to tell this important story accurately and in the spirit of Bill and the other artists involved. Also having got the participation of people like Jude Law, Nick Serota (director-tate), Antony Gormley and Richard Hamilton, we had a definite sense of the scale of what we were undertaking. The positive response from all these people and everyone who has seen the film has been truly amazing and gratifying in a very special way. Also I’ve had some great moments with Bill.
AB: What messages did you want to share, about your father and his work?
AT: Bill is old school. He doesn’t self promote. He is in many ways the antithesis of what it is to be an artist today. Nick Serota says that by the age of 30, Turnbull had a body of work that stands comparison with Giacometti and other mature artists working in Paris in the late 1940’s. Alongside Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, Bill was at the heart of The Independent group in London in the 1950’s, at the genesis of pop art. He worked alongside painters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman and his work features in 2 of the most well known of David Hockney’s LA paintings. He is one of the fore fathers of modernism in Britain but also America.
AB: You've debuted with a very powerful and personal film..what lessons have you learnt in the process?
AT: That making a film takes even more time and energy than making an album. One of the craziest things was the way Johnny and I had followed certain creative cycles that Bill had lived through before we were born. A genetic predisposition to anti-authoritarianism. Skidoo were anti-establishment, or more precisely anti-order. That is, in an aural sense. We were unknowingly propagating ideas born generations earlier. I would never have learned about this had I not made this film.
AB: What are some other projects/subjects that you can hear calling?
AT: I have begun work on a project about the history of street wear. It’s a big subject. I’ve already interviewed Shawn Stussy and Goldie. It’s going to have a pretty stellar cast but they’re all my mates mostly so it should be fun. I also want to make a kick ass British martial arts film. I’ve been training for over 30 years now and have been lucky enough to train with guys like Dan Inosanto, Roger Gracie, Erik Paulson, Bob Breen. This is where I started wanting to make films!
AB: I found a quote I loved, about your former life with the band 23 Skidoo. I wondered if you could elaborate; "23 Skidoo were scaring the fuck out of audiences when Aphex Twin were still being potty trained"....
AT: Yes. That’s a good one. The Aphex Twins made some great videos but our thing was more disorientation rather than horror. We wanted to question the relationship between the audience and performer. We used slides and film projected over us with tape loops between the songs so there was no room for the audience to respond in the normal manner. We didn’t want to repeat experiences so very rarely played what the audience was expecting.
AB: What has filmmaking given you that your past creative outlets haven't?
AT: I’m only getting started. I still have a lot to learn. What I do like about film is that you can bring all of yourself into it. I’m working to incorporate all the elements I’ve existed with - skating, Djing, martial arts, style sensibility. It was great using the 23 Skidoo for Beyond Time. We tried loads of other stuff but that was generally what worked best. Our music isn’t really time specific and that worked perfectly with Bill’s work, which is both ancient and modern.
AB: Why was it important to make the film?
AT: Because people think that modern art began with Andy Warhol and ends with Damian Hirst and Banksy.
AB: Can you tell us a little bit about life outside of work?
AT: I have 2 kids so that takes up quite a bit of time. I’m quite a family man and a devoted dad. I try to make time to do stuff with them. My daughter Kim is 12 so she now busy with her own stuff but I take Jackson to judo and rugby or the skatepark. I’m not a pushy dad but I think it’s important for them to get out and experience stuff first hand rather than through a TV screen. I never really have the time or inclination to play video games anymore but when I do, Jackson who is only 10, always kicks my butt. Maybe it’s you get older you realize than real experience is worth much more than virtual experience.
AB: Do you find yourself frustrated or excited by what's on offer today in terms of art and music scenes? Have kids today got a lot to be proud of or a lot to learn?
AT: There’s so much out there that we’ve become almost immune or desensitized. It’s sort of a sensory overload. It must be quite hard for young kids to get a sense of themselves in the same way we could. It’s a tricky one. We have come so far so fast and no one really knows where it’s all going to end up but we’re heading there full speed.
I wouldn’t have said that kids have lots to be proud of. Not because I think this generation is better or worse but it would be the wrong way to be looking at it. We all have a lot to learn even as adults. Obviously how you learn to learn has a huge effect on the outcome of your life so it’s important for us as adults to understand the importance of how we teach our kids. While it’s important to take pride in what you do, humility is a more important quality.
AB: You seem to have had a lot of fun in your working life...what are some aspects that have been hard, challenging, not so fun? How have you grown?
AT: My mother passing away was a big one, as was losing my good friend James Lebon. It kind of puts things in perspective. Life’s a bitch but it’s also what you make it. The cup half full or half empty scenario. Personally I think it’s vital to celebrate what you have. Even if it’s just the fact that you are living and healthy. Remind yourself always instead of looking at what you don’t have.
AB: What advice would you give yourself, starting out in the world?
AT: Listen more. Speak less. Be humble. Stay Focused.
Intro by Adam Bryce