Enter the Strange and Alarming Dream World of Henry Darger with OUTSIDER
It’s unlikely there will be many records like the OUTSIDER project released this year. It’s a concept album based around the beautiful and alarming paintings of an American outsider artist Henry Darger (b. 1892-1973) by a Frenchman best known for tango trip hop and an Englishman who helped birth folktronica, aided by a cosmic brass band arranger and an old school crooner. Yet, it’s quite a lot more accessible than all that might perhaps suggest.
OUTSIDER is the brainchild of Philippe Cohen Solal of the hugely popular Gotan project, and Mike Lindsay, whose band Tunng also just released another concept album, Tunng Presents... Dead Club, which made it as one of our greatest sounding records of 2020. Both of them are compulsively collaborative workers, with dozens of different projects under their belts. Together they have taken inspiration from the paintings and writings of the reclusive Chicago janitor Darger, raised in extreme poverty and harsh institutions, who created a twisted fairytale world in which hermaphroditic children battled evil forces.
Darger’s visual art is already avidly collected, but the pair wanted to build more from it – and on this album they’ve brought the hallucinatory world to life. With the glorious arrangements of Hannah Peel, and the rich vaudevillian voice of Adam Glover, they’ve turned it into a dreamlike cabaret, a circus of the mind that leaves you feeling disoriented and the world seeming not quite as it was before. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful and compelling record, so we spoke to Solal and Lindsay to try and understand better where it emerged from. Keep reading for a story that spans many years, involves crashed cars and the odd collapsing bridge.
Congratulations on getting this strange and wonderful album together. What brought you two together? Did the working relationship or the album theme come first?
ML: Friendship came first. Philippe and I are fans of each other’s music. I saw Gotan Project in 2001 at Queen Elizabeth Hall and was blown away. A few years later in 2006 we met after my band Tunng was playing in Paris and we’ve been friends ever since. Philippe already had the idea to work on a record inspired by Henry Darger way before we met, but he told me about it and introduced me to his work. Over the following years we talked about him and his art a lot. It wasn’t until 2015 that we started to write the record.
PCS: For me, Mike’s openness and enthusiasm have been determining in this collaboration. I knew that between us, that there would be no issue of ego and it was the first condition of working together on a project inspired by a man who created incredible work without ever searching for fame or even recognition.
You're both seasoned collaborators, each with quite a range of projects under your belt. Could you tell us a couple of your favourite previous collaborative projects please? What have you learned about working with others that you were able to bring into this project?
ML: My ongoing collaboration with Laura Marling has been an incredible experience. We made a record and a band called LUMP three years ago and are about to release the second album. With her we each have our set roles. I’m entirely music and production and she is entirely lyrics and vocals. I will present her with a piece of music in the studio and she will react to that in real time and write lyrics on the spot. It’s amazing to witness.
Another very special collaboration was Tunng with Tinariwen, the Saharan Touareg band. We did a purely live collaboration where we only had four days in a rehearsal room together before we embarked on a 10-day tour in the UK. [Tinariwen] had never worked with electronics before and we certainly had never worked with a calabash player and those intense rhythms. We couldn’t speak each other’s language so there was lots of wild gesticulation and just music to guide us. It was a very powerful experience.
With Outsider, Philippe’s role and mine were blurred. We both wrote, produced and played. At the same time, there was a real energy and excitement in the studio as the tracks developed. Also, working posthumously with Henry Darger’s never-before-published lyrics was a huge thrill. We are so lucky that we have been given the exclusive rights to use them after Philippe found them with his friend Kiyoko, who runs the Henry Darger estate and was his landlady in Chicago. Every collaboration is different and always so educational.
PCS: The trick is to be open and flexible. After 10 years of being immersed in Gotan Project, I’ve spent the last few years collaborating with many artists that I admire. The first was the incredible Malian singer and musician Salif Keita. I co-composed and produced his album Talé between Bamako and Paris and it was a great musical and human experience. Then I released a series of singles and EPs with artists such as Horace Andy, Angelique Kidjo or Chassol with whom I also composed film music. Each collaboration is an adventure that takes you on a route that you hadn’t imagined before. 20 years ago, Gotan Project was born around a song, but it has since turned into a phenomenal success with three studio albums and over 500 sold-out concerts worldwide. I must admit that working with Mike on OUTSIDER was a pleasure at all times — the artistic cohesion of the small crew that we have formed with Adam Glover and Hannah Peel is like a dream team.
This album certainly has a soundscape of its own. How quickly did you move from the conceptual idea of writing around Darger's art, to having that distinct musical identity?
ML: Originally I imagined that the music would be more minimal and collage-based. More of a blend of organic found sound and delicate, otherworldly noise. These elements are definitely present in the finished record but they are the bed on which the powerful “Glandelanian” war ballads lie. Once we started to build song structures around Darger’s fantasy lyrics, and imagine the right kind of voice to present these songs, then the sonic world started to create itself. Adam Glover is a friend of Philippe’s manager and the main voice on the record. I was told he had a voice of a velvet crooner. The first time I heard him sing in the studio, singing the songs that at that point only had my little voice on them, I was totally transfixed and transported into the past and the parallel world of Darger’s paintings. With the addition of Hannah Peel’s string and horn arrangements, and her incredible vocals as the voice of the Vivian Girls [the child heroines of Darger’s narrative], the sound of the record and Darger’s fantastical dark magic tone was complete. All this was then wrapped in a hot tape crunch. This process happened pretty quickly and organically—almost as if the sound was forming by itself.
PCS: The biggest challenge was to create freely, without betraying the artist who inspired us. And follow our intuition, to musically and sonically recreate the pictorial and literary universe, which we had before our eyes. Today I am really happy and reassured to hear from the greatest specialists of Henry Darger and his custodian Kiyoko Lerner—who knew him well—with love and support for our project.
What was it like living in that soundscape during the writing and recording? It's peculiar enough listening to it repeatedly. I'd imagine greater immersion would... do things to you.
ML: Even though it sounds like a joyous twisted musical on first listen, as you open your ears you’ll realise the darkness in the storytelling. His art depicts difficult scenes of war between children and adults amongst psychedelic creatures and volcanic landscapes. The songs are set in this world. It may have altered us somehow—we would have a constant slideshow of his paintings going whilst we were writing. Philippe also had two nearly fatal accidents during the making of this record! A car crash in LA while we were recording the vocals, and later that year at Christmas he was walking on a bridge in Sweden, which collapsed and he fell into the iced sea! Still, he passed the test. He clearly has nine lives and the record is finally finished.
PCS: [Laughs] It’s true that sometimes I feel like a survivor, or rather, a fighter. Darger’s lyrics often sound like war songs, but we wanted to give our music a positive energy. When you produce an album, you listen to your songs hundreds of times so it becomes, for a while, the soundtrack of your life. In the very unusual time that we have been living in for the last year, this album seems to be the best cure for depression and defeat.
Mike, did the process overlap with the Tunng album? That too is a unique microcosm of music and thought. Shifting from one headspace to the other would be interesting.
ML: Actually no, This was finished way before the recent Tunng album, but I learned things with OUTSIDER in terms of making a concept album that carried over in to the Tunng Presents... Dead Club record. Even the most sombre of subjects like death have a positive twist. These are the only two concept records I have been a part of, and it’s a really powerful way to create art and music. The music starts to react to the concept in ways that you would not have thought of otherwise.
How did your feelings about Darger and his work change as the process went on? What do you say to those repelled by the extremity of his narratives?
ML: It’s powerful work, dealing with an extreme life and a very hard childhood and mental illness. His mind is laid out for us in such a beautiful manner. Some elements are difficult for people, but for me, I see it as an innocent mind exploring fantasy. Memories of his childhood are cathartically being expelled. In reality he was extremely introverted and rarely spoke to anyone, but in his fantasy world he was incredibly loud and colourful. To me he is inspirational in the way that even in an extremely simple and humble life, your creativity can set you wild and free.
PCS: By “frequenting” Darger for the last 15 years through his art and words, I perceive a bruised and fragile man. His childhood was dramatic and the fact that he managed to transform his traumas into pieces of artwork is encouraging for society. To those who may be frightened by the strangeness of some of his work, I would tell them to dig deeper and be interested in what lives in otherness or difference. They have something to teach us about ourselves.
Can you tell us about the other key collaborators on this album and what they brought to it?
PCS: Adam Glover, as I mentioned before, is the voice. Nobody sings the way he does any more, channelling Scott Walker and Sinatra. He brought this whole record to life and it’s outstanding to witness him sing. Hannah Peel is well known for her eclectic, gorgeous electronic conceptual records and her film scores and string arrangements for various superstars like Paul Weller. She bought the mesmerising vocals and string arrangements into this project, which really glue everything together with their dark magic dust.
Also, Gabriel Jacquel has made incredible videos for the album, which will become a short film. He reworked Darger’s art pieces and animated them in an unbelievably beautiful and hypnotic way. This really is the best way to hear the record, by immersing yourself in these fantastical animations.
What do you each have in the pipeline after this?
ML: I have a new LUMP record with Laura Marling due out later this year, and various production and sonic experiments in the Margate studio bubbling.
PCS: I still have a little trouble projecting myself into the near future – and besides, who knows today what tomorrow will bring? But I would really like to bring OUTSIDER to the stage because I am convinced that this could become an incredible show, combining music, video projections and storytelling.
OUTSIDER by Philippe Cohen Solal & Mike Lindsay is out 5th February on ¡Ya Basta! Records – and an EP is out now
Cover Image: Outsider Album Artwork
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs