Songs in the colour blue

For him, music's about energy and colour - colour that he recreates on canvas live as bands like Status Quo and the Kaiser Chiefs play. Andy van Smeerdijk meets Kilford the music painter.

Image Credit:Supplied Picture
Staring down Robert Plant, Kilford puts the painting on hold...

For him, music's about energy and colour - colour that he recreates on canvas live as bands like Status Quo and the Kaiser Chiefs play. Andy van Smeerdijk meets Kilford the music painter.

The lights flick on, the drums kick in and a guitar riff takes over. As the audience cheers, eyes turn to an unlikely figure adjacent to the stage.

A man with his head wrapped in a bandana is busy dabbing paint across a canvas with his hands, capturing the music, the crowd, the sheer energy of the concert. This is the world of Kilford 'the music painter'.

The London-based artist has no art degree and no need for paint brushes. No fan of the elitist art fraternity, Kilford is more interested in bringing art to the people, at least those who like rock and indie. That's one factor that's constant in his work - the music.

"There's no need to do it without music," explains the 30-something artist. When Kilford 'feels' music, he sees colour - and that's what he paints. Without the music, presumably there's nothing.

When you first meet Kilford, the muso connection is written all over him. Long hair, sunnies and jeans, he's the epitome of rock 'n' roll.

"I've always painted to music; music's been the key factor. I'm constantly listening to it - on the stereo or on my iPod. I always have music on. When I first started painting to music, I didn't appreciate its importance but then it became more prominent. It just opens up sh**."

Kilford has painted alongside ex-Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant, Paul Weller, The Charlatans, the Black Eyed Peas, Status Quo and the Kaiser Chiefs among other acts. But like a struggling rocker, he started out doing pub gigs.

"I first played with The Feeling. I knew them when they weren't famous. When I first heard them play, I thought... they're good. It was a Saturday and they were playing outside London in some little sh**hole in the Birmingham area. I got to the venue, met them and we had dinner."

The band was keen on the idea of Kilford painting alongside them and his first gig left him euphoric. "On the first chord, I start painting. It feels f***ing good."

In 2006 he took part in an Aids benefit concert with the Black Eyed Peas in South Africa. This time he lost all inhibitions.

"They played for hours. I was shattered, really shattered. But it felt good, really good... the first time when it was 100 per cent pure. Before that it just wasn't as connected. When you're doing something new, you're always thinking about whether you're going to pull it off.

"There was always a concern about whether they're going to like it, whether the manager's going to like it. At the Black Eyed Peas gig, I didn't give a stuff. It was a benchmark. I'd crossed the boundary. There were 12,000 people going mad and I was right near the audience. The energy from the crowd and the band was amazing."

"Painting at a concert's not a repeatable thing... it's based on the audience, it's a channel of the music, everything, the soul of it. Everything that's happening gets channelled. When you get that tingle, that's what it's all about. Even now just talking about it, my hairs are on their end.

"When I paint at a concert, the painting is layered; it
grows with the gig. You wouldn't be able to look at it and pick out individual songs, it equates to a whole performance."

* * *

Live art isn't his only outlet, Kilford also does studio work, painting commissioned pieces based on songs.
"With singles it's often just one layer. It's a very different approach. I'll play the song over and over again and paint to it; I might play it 150 times. I'll stop at a point in the song then continue with the painting, starting at the same point I left off."

"With singles, words come into it a lot more. Words are important. Drums are always the first element that comes through, unless there's a riff before the drums.

"When I did Song 2 by Blur, you can see there's a constant riff throughout. It's orange. I was throwing paint all over the place... it was mental, it's borderline spiritual... all the colours... but there's a depth to it, the middle bit," he says, pointing to the orange strokes rambling across the canvas.

"I once went 14 hours straight working on a piece on Oasis's Rock 'n' Roll Star. The song was in my mind, in my dreams constantly. It's a dirty song; they're in the city... it's crazy and busy and my painting picks up that."

"In the studio, you've got time. But when it's live you tend not to think about it, it's a different growth. Live stuff is instantaneous - you can't change colours as much, you work with what's in your hands."

Although he usually paints to rock or indie, one of his most memorable gigs was with a choir.

"We were on a Greenpeace boat on the Thames. It was... amazing. I painted as the choir sang; it was a protest against the Trident missile programme. There we were - a choir, a production kit and me, all on this tiny little boat. You could pick out each individual voice in the painting. There was a big sound, I did this in deep purple, but you could also hear different sounds within it."

Then there are the gigs that definitely are pure rock. "My favourite picture of me painting was taken when I was at a Robert Plant gig.

"The band was playing Zeppelin's Good Times, Bad Times and during the guitar solo Robert Plant just stopped and stared at me. So I just stopped and stared back. We stayed like that for a long time. It was like he was thinking, 'Who's this... painting at my gig?'

"Another great gig was with The Charlatans at Brixton. I was completely engrossed in it; I've loved The Charlatans since I was 16. It was so intense.

"My ultimate would be painting with Oasis at Wembley. I can see it now already... once that'd be over I think at that point I'd be ready to die."

The artist plays the guitar and also dabbles in song-writing. "I find it's important to understand music myself," he says.

"This way I can experience music from the band's perspective. Without this, I'd be unable to deconstruct a song."

Artistic snobbery ruffles Kilford. For him, graffiti is more relevant than the works in galleries because people connect with it.

"Art's so elitist. At galleries, people always over-intellectualise everything. There's nothing for people to latch on to and relate to. A lot of young people get turned off by this. So when I paint at a concert, the paintings are coming to them, whether they like it or not. We're bringing it to them, not waiting for them to go into some white-walled gallery."

After the initial bemusement, many people at gigs connect with him and what he's doing, he says.

"After gigs, people always come up to me and ask me what it's all about. On MySpace I get a lot of feedback from university students and young people saying it's cool."

* * *

He's becoming increasingly known in Dubai too. Since doing an art show at the Burj Al Arab five years ago, Kilford has regularly returned to do commissioned works and is moving here shortly to set up a studio.

"People often ask me to represent them through their favourite music. Couples want themselves and their relationship represented through a song... something that represents their house and designs. For this, I meet them, talk to them and get a sense of them and their home.

"After we listen to the song, I'll often tell them that the painting won't be soft. My painting will be loud - something that slaps you in the face when you look at it. Most of them are fine with this, but they've got to be prepared. They leave a deposit, but it's refundable if they don't like the painting.

"It all depends on your perceptions of beauty. Some of my paintings are ugly. But everyone's perceptions of what's ugly are different. The thing is, do people always want beautiful things? A painting may look ugly but, hey, rock 'n' roll's ugly."

Recently Kilford has visited Dubai to install two commissioned works. One was a combination of two songs, I Feel You and I Dream of You by Schiller.

"The painting was 300cm by 300cm and the song meant so much to them as a couple; their home was beautifully designed with very soft colours and then WHAM, you walk into the living area and this painting literally slaps you in the face. After it was installed we all stood around and listened to the music as they stood in front of this giant painting. It was very moving."

* * *

Among a few other factors, Kilford says he's drawn to Dubai by its growing music scene.

"I saw a few local bands there last time and I was impressed. Although I've painted with some of the world's greatest musicians, it's not about how famous they are, it's about whether or not I feel the music - and from the few gigs I saw in Dubai, I liked what I saw.

"Abri I thought were really cool and Abstrakt Collision feat. Karima I thought were fab also. Once I get there, no doubt you'll see me splashing some paint about with some of the local bands."