Interview with Terry Dernbach
You’re an artist that works in different disciplines and you’ve gotten exposure and recognition in each of them, art, music and writing. What determines your doing something in one and not another.
Terry Dernbach: It’s not really a choice, it seems more like suddenly one is illuminated in front of me and the others are dim.
Does it depend on the subject.
TD: No, not at all. They’re so different really. They are like different languages. I’ve been noticing lately how blind writing is, for example. I mean, that’s one of it’s powers I think, is it’s blind. That’s why I have those pictures taped on the wall, optical examples of images. And when I’m working on the writing it’s like I’m blind even though there’s imagery within the writing. That's the writing, and then the music that’s entirely something else. It’s nonverbal, and it’s also nonvisual.
When you get a desire to express something, does it come as a visual thing or does it come as…
TD: I think I know what you’re asking me and I’ve thought about it and I think the primary feeling is a desire to construct something, to build something, to cobble something together. I’ve noticed that that’s primary.
Would you prefer or would it be easier to have only one form to funnel everything into.
TD: You know mentally, intellectually, yes. But it’s just not the way it is for me. It sounds like it would be much better. That could be one of my major life problems or my major life problem, being unable to focus, as they say. But you know I don’t care anymore. As a matter of fact, I haven’t cared for a long time about sticking strictly to these three categories that we’ve put a word on here; writing, music, visual art.
When you’re working, do you work at all 3 at a time or does one take dominance.
TD: One is definitely dominant at a time.
Can you explain a little further. Are you talking in terms of years. I mean are there years when you’re making art and after that, is there a writing period and after that, is there a music period.
TD: laughs No, not years. It’s not that long, as matter of fact…Alright, when I’m stuck on one I can temporarily shift to another as a place to rest or to recharge or as a place to stand on and look back at the other view. That happens for me sometimes, especially with the music and I’ll say specifically the guitar. It’s a place for me to go that’s not writing and not painting. It feels very refreshing and free, especiallyin comparison to the others.
Have you had periods where you’ve created nothing. both laugh What does that feel like to you.
TD: You know, I don’t think so. I’m always working on something and I don’t know why that is, but I don’t think that’s special to me. It seems to me that everyone is always working on something. Some how early in my life I was able to imagine my own personal projects for me to do, even when I was a little kid. Playing with tape recorders or melting plastic. both laugh It just developed into….It didn’t develop into any thing. I’m the same. I think I’m just the same.
Do all of these have a vision to end, a completion.
TD: Some of them, yeah. My more adult things do, yeah. I aspire to completing the song. I aspire to completing the screenplay,to resolving the painting.
Is it important to you that these once completed, are read, viewed or listened to.
TD: Yes, it is. It is. But I have yet to achieve any satisfaction from it. No, that’s not true. Any ULTIMATE satisfaction, or I need some more. It’s been a long time. I’ve been unable to present any finished work in a longtime to anybody.
TD: I’ve hit some mental trouble in my life where I needed to withdraw and reconsider my motives.
Are you still going through that.
TD: Yeah, but it’s getting better.
How did you come to know you were an artist.
TD: long silence I think that question is kind of leading in a way or it has an assumption built into it. I don’t really call myself an artist, anymore. I’ve gotten to be more careful about doing that. See, that’s part of the problem, that’s part of the question that I’m asking myself. I don’t feel capable enough to be an artist really. When I was growing up doing what I was doing as a kid, as I grew up and learned more, I learned about art. I learned that there was a thing called art and that there were people called artists. I thought, you know, this kind of suits me, the way I am. Maybe I’ll be an artist too or maybe this is a department where I could work. Ultimately, it’s just another tag. It’s only useful in conversation really. But you have to remember that I’m not a hardcore career artist, so I’m not out there trying to convince anyone that I’m an artist, to demonstrate that fact. To demonstrate it.
What do you think an artist is.
TD: How are we using the word artist.
Well I’m using it in the big way, in terms of an artist who may be a writer, or an artist who may be an actor, and I see a differentiation. I see it in the work that’s produced from the people who I consider to be artists.
TD: That’s a tough question. I don’t think what I think of as real artists ever bother to call themselves artists or ever spend that much time thinking about it.
I didn’t mean when did you decide to CALL yourself an artist but when you knew that that’s what you were, whether it was voiced or not.
TD: I don’t know the answer to this. All things considered I ultimately seem like an artist, because that’s a convenient word for it, I think. I don’t know how else to answer that. It’s like asking are you a poet. Well are you a poet all the time, 24 hours.
Well wouldn’t you call Lorca a poet. Who would you call a visual artist. I mean, you know what it is, whether you want to voice it or not.
TD: Practical, out on the street language, when you tell someone you’re an artist you should paint. You should have an easel, a box of paints, you should be making art. That’s what it means to be an artist or sculptor. It shouldn’t turn out that you’re really making a movie. I would prefer to call that a filmmaker.
But there are artists who are filmmakers and there are filmmakers who are artists.
TD: I just want to say that these are merely words and their definitions. They’re useful on the street but if you delve anymore deeply into what’s behind the words it can become very confusing, in my opinion. I know, hey there are painters that make movies and the movies themselves are art.
Okay. Now I’d like to break things down into disciplines. I hope that’s not offensive to you both laugh because there’s a lot in each and it’s growing as we speak. Did you go to art school.
TD: Yeah, El Camino college.
Has the experience of going to art school made any difference along the way.
TD: Oh God, the stuff that I was exposed to was so amazing. Art history, printmaking, life drawing, calligraphy, sculpture. And all the great teachers and all the other students.
So It was a good experience for you.
TD: It was fabulous.
You might jeer at this one but do you consider yourself a painter even though you work in collage, object making, installation and photography….
TD: Yeah, I do consider myself a painter.
Can you explain that.
TD: I’m most concerned with how to make a resolved painting ultimately, rather than a sculptural object. I’m still very much basically concerned about the rectangle on the wall when it comes to painting. I like those parameters.
Are there any painters that have been influential in your development.
TD: Many. I’m almost reluctant to open up the notebook you know, really. But I was just once again readmiring Philip Guston and his wonderful life’s paintings and many of his remarks about painting too, and his lectures and interviews. I mean, I can tell he knew just exactly what it’s like to face that rectangle and you want to make a painting and you’re not sure how, but you have to do something.
In the 9Os, POST Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles, showed your work and you had a successful solo show there and were part of some very innovative group shows. I’d like to talk about some of that work. “88 Socks.”
TD: “88 Socks.” See, isn’t that strange, we’re discussing painting and now here’s this installation piece, this object. Well, I was offered a gallery room to do a piece in that related to the sound-generating art works of the main gallery show. So that was the requirement, an artwork that generates sound. I had the 88 socks concept in my notebooks for years, maybe even decades. Well, I mentioned it to Habib or showed him a sketch of it and then I kind of dismissed the idea and he said, “No, no, no, just go ahead and do that.” I was going to dismiss it as being ridiculous or silly, or there’s always a feeling like we don’t need that or who needs that. And he said, “No, go ahead and do it.” So I took him up on that word and realized the piece in that room.
Could you describe the room and the piece.
TD: As I recall, it seemed to be about an 18'x1O' room and across the18' length I hung a normal clothesline cord on the wall, just like a normal clothesline, and I hung 88 socks on it from clothespins. They were black and white socks arranged in the same sequence as the keyboard of a piano, the 88 keys of the piano. The white keys and the black keys. The white socks, the black socks, all in a row down the line, and they were soaking wet and they were dripping down on a row of resonating objects I’d placed underneath the socks so that when the drops fell on them they would make pinging noises. They were empty tin cans, Tupperware or little bits of garbage I found out in the alley. Anything you could tap on, get a sound out of. That was the piece, just those dripping socks. The pieces weren’t tuned. It wasn’t a scale like a piano is. They were just really random. I even stopped myself from placing the objects esthetically. I just placed them in the exact sequence that they appeared in my hands. The instant I thought of it, I just set it there.
How often would you have to rewet the socks.
TD: During the opening I stayed on hand to keep it running. It turned out that it would only drip for 3O minutes and then I had to recharge it. I was spraying them with a bottle of water. They were very heavy. 88 wet socks on a line is surprisingly heavy.
Could you also speak about another piece you had in that show in the main downstairs gallery.“The McDonald’s Cup Piece.”
TD: “The McDonald’s Cup Piece.” So here’s this group show in the downstairs gallery. 7 pieces perhaps, and each by a different artist. And mine was “The McDonald’s Cup Piece.” Years ago way back when, at some point you find out if you get a soft drink from McDonald’s or wherever…You get a straw and put it through the plastic lid, if you move the straw it kind of vibrates against the flaps of the plastic lid almost like a violin or a squeaky toy or something that moans. I used to think it would be fun to get 1OO people sitting as if they were an orchestra, each with one of these cups going up and down. Anyway, I just made a simple machine that would run the McDonald’s straw up and down in an empty cup and produce that noise, whatever it is, vwoop, vwoop, vwoop. I can’t make the noise. I took a motor out of a toy car that I got at the Salvation Army and stuck a plastic coffee can lid on it, and with a battery and a couple of alligator clips I made the motor lift the straw and push it back down, lift it, push it down. It would run for hours making that noise. It was mounted on the wall, on a simple little board shelf. Hey let me say something funny about the opening night. I noticed a lot of young mothers with their child, they would go right up to “The McDonald’s Cup Piece,” and kind of show the kid to it and the baby would go like shows that.
TD: You know the way babies will move their arms and their legs at the same time.I mean, there was some kind of response from the mother and the kid, probably because it was so recognizable. It was important that it be the most standard McDonald’s cup I could find. I actually had to drive around a lot to get that cup. Every McDonald’s I would go to, they would print some kind of football thing on the cup. I didn’t want that. I just wanted the golden arches and the McDonald’s. It wasn’t easy. Anyway, all of us respond quickly to something we recognize as familiar as compared to the more exotic pieces aroundthe room that you don’t know what the hell they are, at first.
When you were constructing it, did you have thoughts of McDonald’s laying a year of Happy Meals on you.
TD: Actually, just the opposite. I figured they were going to hunt me down like angry Disney people, you know, who are concerned with their trademarks. I never heard a word from them. I don’t think they would appreciate my contribution to their….I don’t know how to put it, their legend, their mythology.
It wasn’t derogatory.
TD: No it wasn’t. But it’s not pretty, and that straw going up and down through that hole. It’s ordinariness.
In 2OO1 your film “E,” was shown upstairs at POST Gallery as part of another show.Could you talk about “E.”
TD: One of my studios in downtown San Pedro for 5 years. There on the point, Angeles Gate, beautiful, top of the hill, 36O° view of the ocean, World War II concrete gun emplacements left over. It’s a very evocative place. The whole place made me want to make this film. There are these old barracks and a big letter on the corner of each one, A, B, C, D, E and I don’t know, it just went right into my brain like call it “E.” just let that character represent the title of the film. Plus, I’d read that E in cryptology, in the English language, is the most often used letter. Also it’s the first letter at the top of an eye chart and there are a few shots of an eye chart in the movie. Anyway, taken this evocative setting, it’s kind of misty up there and strange, I wrote a dreamlike film not worrying too much if it made any kind of sense. Kind of in the tradition of the surrealists like Bunuel and Dali. I wanted to shoot a small film that I could handle on a weekend. Not too expensive, with my super 8, silent, using friends in some small parts that didn’t require any great emotive acting. And the project resulted in that black and white film called, “E.” I believe that was about 1988. It was great fun. I learned a lot.
Also at POST, your solo show of paintings, including several of your ledge pieces. Could you talk about the conception of that show and your use of the ledge.
TD: It was about 7 or 8 paintings on canvas and wood. Compositions in color and collage. The ledge concept is something I’ve been working with for a long, long time. Basically, all during my painting career, if you use that word, I’ve noticed paint on the wall. In other words, I hang the canvas flat on the wall and then work on it. I’m interested in the reality of the world around the painting and I’ve noticed right there on the ground beneath the painting, all the painting often drops off, drips and dirty brushes, and stuff drops down, and I wanted to somehow bring the reality right up into the painting. So I thought, “I’ll make a little shelf at the bottom of the painting and maybe it’ll accumulate some of that, as it drops down. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, and if the painting is displayed for years it may collect dust or something.” That’s what the shelf concept is. It’s real and it’s supposed to contain an archaeological record of the making of the painting above. The rule I made was that I could never tweak the shelf. I would decide ahead of time to put a shelf at the bottom of a painting and then go ahead and do my painting process on the canvas and whatever happened on the shelf was it. That kind of personal rule.
And finally in this area, as a bridge I hope into your writing, could you talk about your studio piece, “Chinaski,” and also what you think about that guy.
TD: Yeah, well I really admire Bukowski’s writing, his poems and short stories and his novels. His general presence or character, attitude, the honesty. I mean, sometimes it’s brutal but ultimately to my mind, it always ends up being poetic and not brutal or purely sexual.
Could you describe your piece.
TD: It was made the instant I found out he had died. It was my commemoration. I don’t know what word you use, but when somebody you admire dies. I felt I should make a piece in honor of Bukowski or something. It says “Chinaski,” for some reason most people don’t get it. In a lot of Bukowski’s stories he has this character called Chinaski and I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be Bukowski himself or his alter ego. I mean Bukowski-Chinaski. I took the approach that not only does Bukowski die but naturally he’s taken that character with him. It’s a little oblique, you see. And it’s funny to me that quite often writers are asked if their stuff is autobiographical and it’s almost always denied or avoided and yet obviously you’re the creator of all of your characters. Although it’s not strictly true that they die when you die because, for example, other writers have written Sherlock Holmes stories or they’ve carried on with others characters. But in the case of “Chinaski,” it was a special piece in honor of him passing.
Could you talk about your book “Burgess and Malta,” put out by Seeing Eye Books.
TD: Guy Bennett my friend invented his publishing company called Seeing Eye Books and he told me he would like to do “Burgess and Malta.” I said, great because I had already shared a little bit of “Burgess and Malta,” with him. So he did it. There’s Book 1 and Book 2. I started Book 1 in the mid-8Os. One day in my writing I realized, well it’s a trick I quite often use, I simply invent characters, and many others have done this all through history, to go back and forth with dialogue, with ideas. I thought, “I need to have a character who is so excessively poetic so intellectual that he or she can not even communicate at all. Their language sounds like a foreign language or you can’t quite get the sense of it. It’s almost pure imagery.” And for contrast I made it a woman named Malta. I have no idea why the 2 words themselves, Burgess and Malta. I know there’s that Island Malta, I don’t mean that island and I know there’s a writer Burgess, I don’t mean him. They’re just 2 words that kind of came instantly to me from this place that I use for temporary ideas, I call them.
Is it a narrative.
TD: It’s more of a conversation with a light narrative woven in and around it. Basically, Malta speaks excessively poetically and her partner Burgess, an older man is just utterly the opposite. He’s completely everyday and matter of fact about having a sandwich or a glass of water, that’s all. But you sense that there’s some kind of love relationship going on between them. And I have yet to write the third book.
TD: It’s a distant project of mine that I’m fond of keeping in the distance somewhere.
You also wrote some cartoons with another artist for Coagula the art magazine or rag. both laugh Was that a one time thing or had you written for cartoons before.
TD: When I went to EL Camino College I met many people and some of them became my friends and one of my best friends at the time, another painter, was Russ Montoya. He ended up moving to Albuquerque. He began drawing cartoons and sending them out all over the place trying to get published and make money. And with a lot of his cartoons he could never think of a caption for them, so he started sending me copies of these uncaptioned cartoons and he just said, “Whatever you think. See if you can write a line to it.” I was immediately intrigued, “This is kind of fun,” so I would do that. He would send me 2O or 3O cartoons and I’d sit there looking at them trying to figure out a funny remark or a caption and then I’d send them back to him and he would pick his favorite ones and mail them out. We got published a couple of times here and there.
What kind of humor were they.
TD: Well, he said most of my stuff were real clinkers laughs hard I don’t blame him.
Clinkers or corny. Or are they the same thing.
TD: I think they’re the same thing. Clinkers, corny or bad or ridiculous or absurd.
You mean working against the picture.
TD: laughs hard Some of his cartoons were pretty fucking surreal and strange. I mean my goal was to make it into a funny cartoon. I would try my best.
Do you think they really needed to have words.
TD: Yes, because of the rules of the game. In other words, they were not funny as is and he wanted to make cartoons that would sell somewhere, anywhere. They were interesting art drawings but they weren’t funny cartoons without some kind of words. I always thought my words added a great deal to them, but that’s just me.
It seems like cartoon art has really taken off with people like Katz, Tony Millionaire’s Maakies, many more.
TD: That’s right, it’s really rising, getting more and more respect. I never approached it that seriously. I was only acting as a writer really.
A writer for hire. laughs
TD: Yeah. I made 5O dollars. King Syndicate bought one of our cartoons and we split the hundred dollars.
Do you remember what you did with that 5O bucks.
TD: No, I don’t.
Could you talk about some writers that have taught you some big things about life or that have linked up with your way of thinking and confirmed your experience and insight about things.
TD: I’m a little bit stuck on our last topic because I want to say one more thing. Russ Montoya’s made a lot more money on his cartoons. I only happened to make 5O bucks off one sale. He went on to make more money, not a living, but much more than 5O bucks, because he did it for many years and he was printed in various magazines. Anyway, now you’re asking what about writers, what did you say.
Could you talk about some writers that have taught you some big things about life TD laughs or that have linked up with your way of thinking and confirmed your experience and insight about things.
TD: You know when you ask me a question like that it’s almost like a huge YES. I mean that’s what I love about writing in total, all those reasons there. That’s why I read and why I aspire to write myself, to contribute to that world.
Could you mention some writers that have done that for you.
TD: long pause I don’t know who to pick. long pause
Maybe I could help you. Say, Joyce.
TD: Yeah, I’ve read Joyce. I don’t know how much he helped me. I read “Ulysses,” twice and I’ve browsed “Finnigan’s Wake,” and looked at some of his short stories. I can’t say he actually spoke clearly to me, other than I was really wowed and impressed by the experimentalism of “Ulysses,” and all the shit that’s going on in that big fat book.
Could you talk about someone who actually HAS spoken to you.
TD: kind of exasperated Well, alright. I have this hobby of collecting Richard Brautigan books which has evolved into something down through the years. I encountered him in Florida when I was really young, when his work first came out in about ’67 or ’68. My friend Harry and I. Harry worked in a bookstore and turned me on to the book. I was delighted because it was like Chinese or Japanese Haiku. It was very brief, clear, beautiful, delicious imagery and kind of psychedelic, funny, too. I found that very encouraging because it was so light and open and fresh. If you read Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce and John Steinbeck all the great writers it’s very difficult to imagine yourself doing anything like they do because they seem so uncontemporary, not so much Steinbeck, a fabulous writer. But right away the everydayness or the marginality of Brautigan’s style and the smallness or immediacy appealed to me immediately. And it was very encouraging for me in my little writings to just go ahead and keep doing it. That was a big helpful thing and I still occasionally will grab one of his poetry books or something and open it and enjoy it a bit to recharge my writing batteries.
You’ve been working on a screenplay for over a year now. Could you talk about it as much as you can. The process and what you’re learning about the complexity of the form.
TD: Okay. long pause
That’s it, nothing. laughs
TD: No, I’m going to. I’m just pausing. Yeah, I’m writing this screenplay. I’m in my 5th draft of it. I determined at the outset, once again, like referencing earlier in our talk here…I had a strong desire to complete one real screenplay in my life. In other words, properly structured and not just merely artistic or not a cop-out surrealist thing like my movie “E.” I wrote a screenplay for that but I let myself be totally free. It was never intended to be a feature film for a wide audience. It was never intended to be really understood or to mean anything. This time I’m attempting to tell a story and follow the classic forms of the story. To set up characters and situations and then have a sense of resolution near the end where issues that have been open are…well, where questions have been answered. It’s hard to say…Anyway, once again, I made the difficult artistic decision at the outset that I wasn’t going to base the story on something I saw in the newspaper anywhere or anything true to life. I was going to look inside my own conscious dreams and pull out perhaps a personal myth of mine and attempt to develop it into a film story. I’ve done that. I’ve located a number of characters and I have them in a setting and a time period and there’s a great deal of dramatic interaction and there’s a mystery within the film that may or may not be definitely answered. So in the meantime I’m studying. I’ll just say hundreds but not really hundreds of screen writing books, dramatic structure books character development,everything, anything I can possibly get my hands on to educate myself as to how others have constructed screenplays, because it’s really an exciting form of writing. It really is. It’s writing like all other kinds of writing and yet it has it’s own peculiar rules and assumptions because the assumption is that it’s a film, so it’s a special shorthand story because it’s assumed to be a film.
Do you think you would like to write the music or songs for the film.
TD: Well, you know I’ve thought about it but I keep those thoughts out of my mind. I even keep thoughts of directing the film or even making the film out of my mind because I’m strictly focused on writing the screenplay and making that, just so. I can’t let myself think about composing the music for it. I would love to, but given that task, I would utterly focus on just that. Music in film is a whole wonderful department in itself and I would hope that if this film were ever made that it were nicely handled. I mean abstract film music, no pop songs or any of that shit that we often see. But no, I don’t think about that. There are no songs germane to the story so it’s not on the page at all.
When did you start writing and performing your songs and forming bands.
TD: I started in ’78,’79. I started writing songs in 1969. I was still in El Camino art department and sometimes when we weren’t painting or drawing we would have these huge classroom jam sessions, banging on garbage cans and desks and everything else. Some really amazing things happened. I was shown how you can make music without having strict musical instruments.
What about some of the bands. Was there only 1 band.
TD: No, there were 4 permutations of it. The first one at the studio—I decided to ask a drummer and bass player and there was me. It was a trio, and I built the drum kit out of garbage cans, brand new garbage cans and steel buckets. Somebody had a cymbal. We had a tambourine and bongos. It was real trashy and I had an electric guitar and for some reason I just wanted to have a band like that. Even when I was little I had a band.
Do you like performance.
TD: No. I hate it. I really hate it. It’s terrifying and I’m a terrible performer.
But people say your band was great and sounded great.
TD: I think they’re just flattering me or something because it feels terrible.
Did you get off on wearing different clothes.
TD: During one period. I never got too wild but I used to wear like orange baggy pants, nothing too wild. I fucked around with some eye makeup once. It’s ridiculous really, you want to share your music and it’s really hard to do it in a club situation, live, very difficult.
Were people dancing to your music or just gawking.
TD: Sometimes, sure there was dancing. Sometimes gawking. Sometimes ignoring.
Did you ever get paid for it.
TD: Sure, all the time, all the time. Not big money. Our biggest paying gigs were wedding gigs. Wedding gigs were notoriously well paid, cause you just got an outright 5OO bucks.
But yours wasn’t wedding kind of music.
TD: No, not at all. both laughing
How did you sucker them in to it.
TD: It’s not a sucker them into it. They know you, they like your group. They’ve seen you at the clubs and shit and they want you to play at their wedding. They’re already into it, see. They just think it would be neat to have your band play at their wedding instead of some corny wedding band.
Could you sing some lyrics of a song that worked for you in performance. Random lyrics, a lick.
TD: I have a lot of songs. We did a lot of songs. I don’t know what to choose. Oh, I remember “Mundane Tunes,” that’s kind of indicative in a way.
Black phones and doors on hinges
Windows and avenues
White walls and crumbled fenders
Mistakes in the news
Canned goods and notebook paper
Car keys and unmatched socks
Whispers and special favors
Ash trays and parking lots.
And then it just simply says:
The mundane tunes of every day life
What was the music like.
TD: It was kind of an itchy, garagey, rock thing. I’d have to play it for you. Do you know music. Do you know what a G to a B flat sounds like.
laughs No. But maybe somebody reading this does.
TD: It has an itchy, spiny, harmonic electric guitar chime going on, with a very strange lead part that I enjoyed playing. It was kind of bent. There were some unexpected notes in it, but it made sense.
How long is it. Did you record it.
TD: Many times. It’s probably 3 minutes.
You also make instruments.
TD: I have.
Could you describe one.
TD: Simple noise instruments, none of them have a profound difference to them.
What about the box guitars.
TD: See, those are just deliberately crude homemade stringed instruments or a resonating object.
Do you make one just because you feel like making one of those or is it to make a guitar at the time.
TD: Both. I often imagine what it would be like if you had to make your own instruments, you know. That would be kind of fun. If you couldn’t buy anything you’d just have to put it together.
Can you envision a project or piece that could bring together the use of all the disciplines you work in.
TD: Yes, I can. It would be called a movie. It has photography. It has sound. It has musical effects. It has writing. It seems like the greatest synthesis of the whole damn thing.