An Evening with Mik Artistik

One of the many fabulous things about having the Van is that it is like having one’s own mobile hotel. We frequently use it for short trips away to go to gigs which otherwise might mean returning home to Headingley very late at night. This wasn’t much of a problem in years gone past when a music night out was always a late one, often finished off by a curry in the early hours of the morning at Nafees or perhaps the original Corner Cafe. However, such shenanigans are now beyond the limit for two aging geriatrics who are wiped out by staying up much beyond ten o’clock. Being aged and retired does have its advantages though, as it means that attending a music event some distance from home can be stretched to a 3 or 4 night trip away. This was the case with our most recent musical escapade.

Mik performing one of my favourites -Secret Cloak of Invisibility

We have been Mik Artistik fans for over a decade and have seen him perform in many venues in Leeds, the last one being the “Christmas Party ” at The Brudenell in late December. So, when we saw that the Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax was offering “An Evening With Mik Artistik” it was a no brainer and a campsite in Hipperholme was duly booked.

Colonnades of the Piece Hall

We had never been to The Square Chapel Arts Centre before, which abuts the stunning Piece Hall in Halifax. It was early evening when we arrived at the venue and were able to admire the almost Venetian beauty of the Piece Hall before seeking out the Arts Centre.

The entrance to the Square Chapel Arts Centre is under the corner archway

The interior of the Arts Centre is also very beautiful with a mix of modern art and Georgian architecture.

The cafe, foyer and bar area of The Square Chapel Arts Centre

We had been intrigued by the event as it wasn’t going to be the usual type of Mik Artistik gig. It was based in the fairly small Copper Auditorium and so promised to be quite an intimate performance which involved a short 2011 documentary film, ” Who is Mick Artistic”, an interview of Mik and his faithful band member, Jonny Flockton, by the BBC Radio 6 presenter Chris Hawkins and finally a live music set.

Exterior entrance of the centre

First how to describe his music. Well it is certainly of the Marmite variety. We absolutely love it…..our daughter absolutely hates it…and that’s despite years of indoctrination. I find it hilarious, surreal and at times totally mad. A bit like Mik himself!

For a largely unknown Leeds figure he has some very famous fans. Iggy Pop recently named “Sweet Leaf of the North” on National Public Radio in America as his favourite song from the last decade “because it’s human, and it’s real, and it has soul”. What a great recommendation for a song that’s about a leaf stuck on a van windscreen!

Actually, I find it quite hard to categorise his music. It is often amusing, sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful, but always unpredictable. To give it the label “comedy songs” would be to demean it. I would perhaps put him alongside artists such as Ivor Cutler or Viv Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

Chris Hawkins introducing Mik Artistik at the Square Chapel

What he does at his gigs is provide a sort of cabaret performance of his songs….usually involving impromptu and off piste ” musicalarised ” reactions to events or people at the gig itself. How on earth his fellow band members manage to keep up with his diversions from the songs on the set list heaven only knows….but they do. Such moments are hilarious at the time but do not transpose well when written down. On Thursday night for instance, he knocked over his drink during the performance and then made up a song about cleaning it up and in doing so immediately won the aged, rather reserved audience over.

For me his songs are surreal, beautiful observations of the mundaneities of everyday life which so often resonate with my own experiences. The plaintiff, “I’m turning into Dad” reminds me of when I was once in a phone box and caught sight of a stranger who was a dead ringer for my mother…..only to finally reach the ghastly conclusion that it was my own reflection! Or the numerous occasions I either have or have been tempted to make that impatient mistake of walking to the next bus stop and then had to race there, all the time worrying that the bus would overtake me before I reached the stop. The song that describes that event so well “Car That Makes A Bus Sound”, always makes me grin.

The short documentary film did provide more insights about Mik although it left many of our questions unanswered.

He was born in a small village in Ireland in 1955 and with his family came to live in Armley in Leeds when he was 5. He had quite a tough childhood and struggled with the grey, grimy, and grim aspects of industrial Armley in the sixties. After several fruitless jobs he went to art college in Bradford and art remains a great motivator for him today.

His house is a riot of chaos filled with objects and bits of detritus he has retrieved from the streets of Holbeck which he then uses as inspiration either for his songs or his artwork. He particularly enjoys “rescuing ” small, broken toys that he then puts in pride of place on his windowsill.

Although he has used a wide range of media in his art, he is most famous for his “paper bag portraits”. Simple pen or pencil portraits of local people drawn on the back of paper bags in pubs, cafes, community centres and streets around Holbeck and Leeds city centre. He says he used the bags as he thought it an interesting concept as to what might be behind the portrait on the back of the bag or what might be placed inside. And all along I had just presumed that it was simply a cheaper and more readily available paper source!

The Q and A conducted by Chris Hawkins did clear up another area of mystery. Several Christmases ago Gary was given the latest Mik Artistik CD by the family. He struggled to hide his disappointment…..he was convinced that he already had it in his collection. However when he played it later he realised that it did contain new material and indeed was a different album. It was just that the CD sleeve looked remarkably similar to the one he already possessed.

As you can see…..this is indeed true….

Mik told the audience that he deliberately kept the artwork on his all his CDs very similar as he enjoyed the thought that folks at his merchandise stall would be confused as to whether or not they had already bought the CDs on offer! This is clearly far more of a humorous prank than a sales tactic as most people will probably err on the side of caution and not buy the CD in case they already have it at home.

Jonny Flockton and Mik Artistic being interviewed by Chris Hawkins

Being greedy I was slightly disappointed that the Q and A was not opened up to the audience so that some of my own burning questions could be answered.

Such as….was God still such a large feature in his life? In the film….now almost 10 years ago……he had said he went to mass every day …..albeit only with 6 old ladies and a priest with a club foot. As a Mik Artistik fan it had never occurred to me that he might be strongly religious.

Also although, it was probably not appropriate in that venue, I would like to know what had happened to the other regular stalwart of his band who had appeared in the film…..Benson, the bass guitarist whose musical talent my son and husband had felt irreplaceable.

Then came the moment we had all been waiting for an all too short, live music set featuring some of his best known and loved songs.

All in all a glorious evening was had by one and all.

And finally…if given the chance, what would you ask Mik?