Jem Finer on bowls, Longplayer and life with the Pogues
It takes a while to move on from the Tibetan singing bowls. There are a lot of them, after all, and not a lot of space. Big ones, small ones, lopsided ones, tarnished ones. Just shifting in my seat I strike the nearest, and once it starts all the others get going in sympathy — singing away like semi-spherical tuning forks, briefly rendering my Dictaphone useless. “They were recommended by a friend of mine in a band that I played in for years . . .” Jem Finer’s intonation rises, and he looks at me interrogatively — as if I might not have heard of this longstanding musical indulgence, “... the Pogues.”
Perhaps he really does think that I trekked through an industrial estate and along a dual carriageway, to a desolate island opposite the O2 arena just to talk about bronze bowls. Perhaps he thinks that we are here because of his last project, a large trumpet emerging from the forest floor that plays ghostly music powered by rainwater. Or perhaps he thinks that we are here just to talk about his continuing installation, Longplayer, a piece of music programmed to last 1,000 years without repeating itself. But I suspect not.
Eventually it is him who turns the conversation around. “I don’t know what you know about my background, but I was in this group called the Pogues for a long time,” he says. “It’s not something I harp on about much.” He really doesn’t.
We eventually get on to his two decades as a banjo player in the only band to get the words “cheap, lousy faggot” into a Christmas song — why they split, why they are back together, whether Shane MacGowan has stopped drinking — but only after we have spent 45 minutes on the bowls.
The esoteric Longplayer, commissioned by Artangel, is typical of the projects with which Finer, 54, has filled his days since the Pogues collapsed in 1996. Fairytale of New York — the band’s hardy Christmas hit — “helps to deal with the financial realities of life: like kids going to college and fixing your house when it breaks”, and now he is free to be more experimental.
Longplayer is composed of six 20-minute melodies played at the same time on synthesised — until now — Tibetan singing bowls, whose starting positions iterate in such a way that the music will not repeat itself for 1,000 years. Since starting on January 1, 2000, it has lived only in the processor of a computer — piped from a lighthouse in Docklands, in the East End of London, to listening posts in Alexandria, San Francisco and Brisbane. Its purpose is to tackle the “problems of representing and understanding the fluidity and expansiveness of time”, specifically to represent the idea of the millennium.
For 1,000 minutes next month Longplayer will leave the electronic and enter the physical. Some 234 bowls and shifts of six musicians at a time will pick up the tune, play it for 16 hours 40 minutes and hope to be in the right place when they end. “One of the things about music is this feeling that when you perform a song you’re surfing on the cusp of time, flapping on a wave,” Finer explains of the work.
We may be surfing time, but we are also perhaps surfing dangerously close to pretension here. Nevertheless, Finer seems at his most enthusiastic when talking about the practicalities of creating a 1,000-year-long piece of music, rather than the lofty theories. “How are you going to design to last cultural change? What do you do about energy sources? How are you going to keep it playing? Do you use indestructible computers? Or do you try to get humans to play it and enthuse about it?”
Finer is part of that increasingly trendy subset of ageing rockers — the pop starscientist. “I don’t want to be thought of as a Brian May [the Queen guitarist] kind of character,” he says. “I’ve got a computer science degree — he’s got an astrophysics PhD. He is portrayed as an old rocker with this astrophysics thing going on on the side. I’d rather be thought of as an artist and experimental composer who sometimes just plays rock’n’roll.” But there is a map of Mars on his wall, he talks casually about Fourier transforms and he spent two years as artist-in-residence at the University of Oxford’s astrophysics department.
It was just before he started at Oxford that the Pogues decided to re-form — and were suddenly very much back in demand. “It’s strange,” Finer says. “You start a band, schlep around for 15 years. Then you stop, wait for ten years, and suddenly everyone wants to see you again.”
He views the Pogues, post-reformation, as an enjoyable — and lucrative — hobby. “It’s not the most creative of endeavours — we’re not doing new material. We just travel around, do the odd date here and there. We’ve grown up together for almost 30 years and are very happy to return to something that had initially been a great joy to do together but had subsequently become rather unpleasant.”
Ah, the break-up. “There were issues that needed to be resolved.” He cocks his head and gives a lopsided grin. “They have now been resolved.” He is referring — I presume initially — to MacGowan, the Pogues’ lead singer, and his drinking. If you watch some of their live performances on YouTube, MacGowan is clearly drunk — the songs mangled. The band were eventually forced to sack him. But today he is back, and Finer is magnanimous.
“We all had problems. Even though I might not have had . . .” He chooses his next word carefully, “... consumption problems that some other people had, I might well have had attitude problems.” This is all a little coy. Those “consumption problems” included a memorable evening when MacGowan vomited on the front row in a concert. That was in 2002 — after the band had supposedly “resolved their issues”.
Is MacGowan better now? Finer looks irritated. “What do you mean better? What was wrong with him? There’s this weird idea that he’s on a traditional alcoholic downward slide. I wouldn’t say he’s better or worse. Life’s more complicated than that.”
Before I leave, I ask to visit the lighthouse, the mother ship of Longplayer’s listening posts. Finer leads me out into the car park, past shipping crates and old warehouses, and unlocks the door. Inside, it is almost entirely bare. The tower of the lighthouse leads into a large, rectangular room where an early iMac, vintage 1999, is plugged into an amp, patiently approaching the end of the first 1 per cent of its millennia-long song. With its translucent back and colourful monitor, it already looks like an antique. Quite how it will continue to chunter away for another 991 years is unclear, though Finer optimistically hopes that Longplayer will eventually live on in a more low-tech medium — being continually performed by a rolling group of musicians. A committee is working on it.
There are two visitor books. “Mesmerising,” writes one recent visitor. “Well done, I think it’s great,” says another. Some of the fellow Pogues — Spider, Darryl Hunt — have commented. Ella and Kitty, his daughters, and Marcia (“wife, mother, conceptual artist,” she writes in the occupation column) are also there. “Kitty is the most snide about it now,” Finer says. “You’ll probably find another entry later on that says ‘sounds the bloody same as last time’.”
She is probably right. The music is ethereal — other-worldy and a little beautiful. And while technically it does not repeat itself for 1,000 years, it’s never going to suddenly produce — monkey and typewriter style — the 1812, or Mozart’s Requiem. Or even Fairytale of New York.
It’s a long way from Irish folk rock and banjos, isn’t it? “When I look on my life now, I see the Pogues as sort of fitting into my whole artistic development. You can look on them as a kind of conceptual project — it came from an idea of ‘Let’s see what happens if we play music according to this simple formula’.”
So the whole thing — the touring, the writing, the drinking, the playing — was just part of a continuum that led to this? “Obviously this wasn’t how I saw it at the time. That would be silly. But things always make sense as time goes by. It’s only at the point where you die that the story is over, and you can see a whole history.” And with that, I leave for the long trudge through Docklands — and Jem Finer returns to a pokey attic room to tune his bowls.
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