During two hours of soft spoken intensity Andrew Ellis chainsmoked Camels and unfurled before us a thought and spoken map of the city of Liverpool, with his annotations, and regard for space, community, music and beauty.
We met Andrew on an afternoon that blustered sunshine around us at a table, outside The Buyer’s Club, where Andrew is a fixture. His studio is nearby, but doesn’t have any windows, so The Buyer’s Club is a better space to work in, to talk in. Spaces are important to Andrew. He was a vocal narrator of The Kazimier when its fate was in the hands of the council; on the day we met, he was looking forward to the night, and the opening of The Kazimier’s new production of a new space, The Invisible Wind Factory.
“I’ve been down there about once a week for the last couple of months,” says Andrew. “It is such a beautiful thing. We had a period of mourning, but during the whole time that there was the fear over The Kazimier, there had been this space just quietly working down on the docks, where they were building everything. And it’s huge.
“As it became acknowledged that The Kazimier was closing, there started to become this transition towards making that a new space, with a live space and plans for big events, a new garden, the workshops, and then upstairs this integrated artistic community. So it’s this beautiful building, and it’s Liverpool in a nutshell; the studios giving people the space to do the work they need to do at a low cost, and to do work for Kazimier productions, who benefit from this happy community working together and producing amazing stuff.”
We wanted to talk to Andrew first about his photography, because we’d seen some of his pictures and loved looking at them. After looking at his pictures we looked at Andrew, or what we could see of him through Google and social media, and realised how much more Andrew might be able to talk to us about, apart from his considered clicking with a medium format camera. That activity is a hobby made serious for Andrew, a way of seeing something new, of getting out from behind a computer – he shoots analogue – and a way of being creative.
“I’m not a particularly creative person,” says Andrew, who told us a lot about himself in confessional asides:
“I float about in conversations too much.” “Sorry, I chain smoke.” “I say ‘context’ so fucking much.” “I swear too much.” “I’m a fucking horrible nerd who likes coffee and weird ambient records.” “I really do smoke too much.” “I don’t even know if diaristic is a word, but I’ve used it three times now.”
Andrew is the rare interviewee who will ask to go off the record so that he can say some people are “the nicest people in the entire world, they give me faith.” The secret of who Andrew meant here will die with us, but if you’re Andrew’s friend, you can be pretty sure that if he didn’t say it specifically to us about you, he will think it about you, and he’ll mean it, because Andrew is brimming with a sincere appreciation of and gratitude to the people that make Liverpool the place he wants to be, every day.
“One thing I find beautiful, is finding that more and more people are moving to Liverpool from other cities,” says Andrew. “There’s a migration from London, with the rise of the digital age. I have always struggled with the choice, because there aren’t really that many jobs open in Liverpool for what I like doing – commissioning multidisciplinary, artsy stuff. But up here I’ve got my studio, and the fun shit and the stuff I really enjoy is up here.
“So I made the decision for myself based on happiness. And I think the economy here works more, although it sounds so pretentious, on beauty and time. What is more important? Capital, or time? I think the people who migrate here choose time, and the time to pursue the things that make them happy.
“The movement isn’t just about Liverpool being a port anymore, when it was a natural place to come to. It’s about moving to a place because people know they can have a little bit more financial freedom, a community they can embed themselves in, a place that’s open so people can dip into things quite easily. That was my experience when I moved here; I asked a few promoters about putting on shows in Liverpool and they helped me out straight away.”
That was ten years ago, when Andrew moved from London to Liverpool to study popular music, and not necessarily to live in a house with twenty people, to put on shows at Magnet, Korova, The Kazimier, to commission music for the biennial, to work in artist development with Merseyside Arts Foundation, to programme one-off shows with Immix Ensemble; although he ended up doing all those things anyway, propelled by the people he met, the spaces he found, and an urge to create experiences.
“I wasn’t the best student,” says Andrew. “I really enjoyed learning but wasn’t very good at hitting deadlines. So I was cruising through university and about three months in I started putting on gigs for bands that weren’t really playing in Liverpool – weird DIY noise stuff. Trencher were the first band I put on – Casio grindcore, very odd.
“After I’d done about ten shows of weird noisy shit, I got an email from Mike Deane, who runs Liverpool Music Week; I’d never met him, but he said he’d seen what I was doing, and asked me to co-promote a show for Daniel Johnston.
“It was around the time that a few bigger promoters came in, like Harvest Sun and Evol, who were putting on bands like I’d been doing, but doing it at the next level. And after the Daniel Johnston show, I got more interested in the idea of shows being one-offs, in giving people experiences.
“The Biennial approached me in 2012 to put together a commission with Rhys Chatham, who I’d put on before at Bluecoat Gallery. It was for an orchestra of one hundred guitars, at Liverpool Cathedral. The queue was out the door and we couldn’t get everyone in, but I remember someone who was left just outside the door said that, though it was a shame they couldn’t see it, look: four thousand people have just queued up to see a weird art performance in Liverpool.”
Which is what it’s all about.
“It’s giving people the opportunity to see something. It’s not about educating people, or about high art or low art, I think that’s bullshit. People should just enjoy what they want to and experience as much as they can. But to give people something that otherwise wouldn’t happen in Liverpool – that is, in a roundabout way, what I aim to do.”
It’s currently done through Immix Ensemble, which exists in one form as a recorded group of performers led by Daniel Thorne, whose talent as a jazz composer was hidden from Andrew behind the counter of Dan’s job in Bold Street Coffee; one day, or it sounds better if we say it was at night, Andrew heard Dan playing saxophone from the back of the shop; we like to think it was as if he was soundtracking a detective noir. Except Dan was playing Happy Birthday.
“I remember thinking, he’s never brought this up,” says Andrew. “And I said to him, you’re a really good saxophonist. Later on he came through the Merseyside Arts Foundation scheme at Metal, and it turned out he’s a fucking great saxophonist, and he’s won a load of jazz composition awards and commissions.”
Dan founded Immix Ensemble at Metal, with Andrew managing what has become in its other form a series of one-off performances, with an expanding and collapsing cast of performers, including Stealing Sheep, Bill Ryder-Jones, Ex-Easter Island Head, dancer and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir, and more.
“The whole raison d’être of Immix Ensemble is uniting different voices around the city. Liverpool does a really good job of pulling people together; as far as the artistic community goes, it’s a city of hundreds or thousands of individual artists, and everyone has ideas. It seems like everyone is pushing towards something, regardless of what’s in the way.
“Immix is very much about building connections between those communities. On a personal level, Liverpool is too small for there to be rival communities, like punks versus metal kids. Everyone is just mates with everyone. But those conversations weren’t necessarily happening on an artistic level, they were mates and pints.
“Immix is a catalyst. A lot of people see this instrumental group playing experimental modern music as a barrier, as if it’s this higher thing they can’t touch, but Dan was like – it’s not higher than anything, it’s just a way of creating sound. So let’s bring different communities together to create good work.
“I’ve never been interested in managing a band, because a band has this upward trajectory, where the aim of it is to keep moving upwards. But with Immix each project is within itself; the goal each time is one scratch performance and then the artists can take that further if they want. It’s always a fiver in, it’s always in a nice venue, it always has good programme notes, it’s a Wednesday or Thursday night and an artist you’ve heard before is involved, so it’s a good way for people to take a punt on what might be some interesting music.”
The experimental, one-off nature of each Immix Ensemble performance is appropriate to a city that, Andrew says, has an increasingly visible artistic resilience, an understanding of the need to build on spirit rather than bricks, particularly since the closure and demolition of The Kazimier.
“I remember in 2008, when there were murmurings of this new space,” says Andrew. “I remember going in a week before, and it was love at first sight. Walking into the space was so perfect, no person opening a space would decide it would be like The Kazimier was.
“With the space it came to a point where we knew it was going to be sold. Everybody in the family knew. It is a family, a family of a thousand people, each with their own role or connection. But Liam at The Kazimier was saying, we’re not going to get in the way. We’re not going to try to list the building to stop it being sold. There’s a quote by a guy called Robert Montgomery, I have it printed on my wall: All palaces are temporary palaces. I think that was reflected in The Kazimier.
“Although I think there was a period of mourning before it closed, and after it closed, you’ve got this really beautiful space, and it’s got this amazing community around it, and it’s going out at the peak of where it’s at, with a huge party.
“The fear was in the unknown. What was going to happen? But I think venues like The Kazimier are also inspirational. People see that these people have turned up, they have worked hard to find a space, and through being good people, and showing that when things are done right and for the right reasons, something beautiful can spur from that.
“Communities are inspired by the stories of things that have come before them, and there will always be somebody who will say yeah, we’ll find a way to do this. Liverpool has always been a fighting town, about justice and not being downtrodden. Yes there are negatives, and we get angry about those negatives, but we try to find a solution. And if it’s not a solution with big players, it’s about finding a way to start things slowly at the bottom.”
The principle that fleeting beauty, made with sincerity, can inspire long after its moment, also applies to Andrew’s photography – “A small part of what I do, but something I really enjoy.
“It’s also an excuse to travel. I don’t take many photographs in Liverpool anymore, because I feel like my eyes have adjusted to it too much.
“I think photography is really helpful in giving us an understanding that, generationally, people aren’t all that different. If you cut out the politics and the technology of an era, and want to look at what brings communities together, photography is a good level.
“Mark McNulty has been taking photographs in Liverpool for years and years – and he gave me a shedload of film he wasn’t using, because he is a solid human being. You look at his photos of Cream and Eric’s and the early clubbing scene, and it’s an interesting insight into how those communities form. The people might be dressed differently but you can tell, they’re having the same sort of time that we have now.
“I think photographs are amazing for that purpose, and I think we take it for granted. I try not to take photographs of things that are obvious, that have been taken before. But it’s later down the line when it comes in. If I took a photo of this bar now, people might like it because they like the bar, but there’s no real story behind it; there’s nothing new for me here. But get that photo out in ten years, and people will have memories relating directly to it, remembering this is what it was like at this point.”
When we asked Andrew about his photography, he told us about how he uses a medium format camera for the self-discipline involved in not being able to take five hundred digital shots, transferring real life to jpegs at a real frame rate; “It’s fifteen shots a roll and it’s a real pig to reload, so I consider things a bit more; and I also have the financial implication, where every shot is worth a quid, so I take the time to compose and find what I really want within a frame.”
Then he told us about all the other people around him in Liverpool that inspire him to take photographs, from projects with Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords (“sonically he is very much of the Wirral,” says Andrew, “his music sounds to me like the landscape that surrounds him”), that led to documenting Forest Swords’ tours with an old camera; to the people in Liverpool Andrew says do it better than him.
“There are some really great photographers in Liverpool. Most of the bands in Liverpool all take their own cameras out with them, and they’re all great photographers. Kieran from Circle Waves always has a camera with him, all of Stealing Sheep take cameras out with them and they’re all great photographers. Joe Wills produces loads of bands and he always has a camera with him. My favourite photographer in Liverpool is Simon Gabriel, who is in Organ Freeman, who are a really fun band.”
And finally we came to what Andrew really loves about photography, which seems to stand true of a lot of what Andrew really loves about a lot of things – that it’s a way to everyone.
“I think the iPhone is the greatest thing that has happened to photography in twenty years,” says Andrew. “It has democratised it, because so many people have a smartphone in their pockets, and are able to document their daily life, and anything they think is beautiful.
“I think what attracts me to photography is that everyone has their own eyes. I am attracted to the idea of the beauty that people see in different things, and to photography as a literal representation of somebody’s viewpoint in a way that other things aren’t.
“I really like having that insight, into people’s worlds. Into what they find beautiful.”
First published in TCT