Two Canvases: When Music and Art Collide

Many of your favorite rockers have second careers as painters

The Lees of Memory - Unnecessary Evil
John Davis

A Bird of Prey is unsheathed, all angular feathers and sharpened beak. It’s an abstract creature of stained glass and glue, shimmering with brilliant sky blues and autumn tones. It’s a prism of imposing strength. And it represents its master’s journey beyond earthly wants.

It lands, to grace the front cover of Unnecessary Evil, the latest album by Lees of Memory, composed of former members of power-pop band Superdrag. They went from imploring, “Who sucked out the feeling?!” in the mid-’90s to finding the feeling in God, in psychedelic sounds and in art.

Rekindling a spark

Visual art, in particular, has enhanced Lees’ current work and their 2014 debut, Sisyphus Says. Front man and primary songwriter John Davis called upon his fine arts education to birth his Bird of Prey, a long-incubating piece waiting for the right time to come forth. Like Daenerys Targaryen’s beloved dragons, Davis’ canvases waited eons to spread their wings.

During Superdrag’s tenure in the pantheon of alternative archangels, Davis all but abandoned his visual gifts.

“I was 19 when we started Superdrag, still trying to go to [the University of Tennessee] with this kind of shadowy notion that I was getting a fine arts degree,” he says over the phone about a month ahead of Unnecessary Evil’s release. He laughs and continues: “This is hilarious— that first 45 we put out, when we got an opportunity to put out a 7-inch and go on the road and play two shows, I quit.”

It wasn’t until about 2006 when he picked up the paintbrush again, and even then, the inspiration was sporadic. But his wife encouraged him to rediscover the passion he’d harbored since ninth grade.

“Her granddad in East Tennessee used to grow poppies, so she asked me to paint some poppies. So that was in, like, 2011, I think, and pretty much kept something on the easel ever since.”

Balance and composure

Davis’ dual canvases of painting and recording are symbiotic outlets. As we discuss his interest in tie-dyeing, the conversation grows more esoteric. He is an avowed Christian, with two faithful solo albums under his belt. But his philosophies parallel Taoism, suggesting a yin and yang to his works.

“I got into this idea of trying to do symmetry— like, in a portrait, you wouldn’t ever want symmetry, not exactly,” he explains. (In addition to his abstracts, he sketches and paints portraits of sports and music figures, usually on commission.) “But in tie-dyes, when you fold your fabric, you try to get it as symmetrical as you possibly can. So when you make your fold, it’s a mirror image of itself.”

Artists of visual media and of music hold a mirror up to themselves daily, whether in a self-portrait or in a song where “I” is the subject. Look at the paintings of Marilyn Manson, for example: The Green Whore of Love depicts an emaciated androgynous alien grasping to become Ziggy Stardust— or at the very least, a little more human. Through his portraiture, perhaps even more than through his music, he admits, “As a kid I had buck teeth and braces and acne. I hated what I saw. I'm still not comfortable, but that's why I change and adapt the way I look.”

Or consider the paintings of ex-Elastica singer Justine Frischmann. Though her brand of Britpop was rugged and unapologetic, her visual art is even more so, highlighting “all the mistakes and self-doubt and moments of uncertainty.” Sheets of ice, buried labyrinths— all these comprise her Lambent (“shining or softly glowing”) series, on display in San Francisco until May 28, 2016.

Other double-threat creatives, such as Jessicka Addams of Jack off Jill, find refuge in visual art that she just can’t get in a musical setting.

“I wanted to go to art school when I was a kid,” she told us in 2015. “And I was never allowed, so instead I rebelled and went into rock but without ever having any musical training. And then I didn’t get to go to art school, so I’ve been teaching myself along the way and I’ve had a lot of great mentors, too, that I’m very grateful for. The main difference is that art is very solitary. You spend 12 to 14 hours when you’re really in it, in a room by yourself creating.”

Addams collaborated with Mindless Self Indulgence’s Lindsey Way for a gallery in February 2016. Addams’ portion was dubbed “Please Stop Loving Me,” partially after the Cure song “End” and partly because “I lost a lot of people this year, more than I’m comfortable to admit. I really dealt with a lot of death. And I feel like the more, the deeper that you love that person, and the deeper that they love you, the harder it is to deal with their absence.”

A Necessary Goodness

Even as the art and music industries become more digitized, there is still a craving for the tangible. Davis’ original Bird of Prey painting sold for $800 to a PledgeMusic investor. Its companion, Death Mask, garnered $600. The proceeds helped to fund the completion of Unnecessary Evil, an album that took more than a year to finish thanks to day jobs, families and the scarcity of studio time.

The Lees of Memory are a blessed bunch that skillfully combine visual and aural art. The Bird of Prey complements the massive strains of “All-Powerful You,” awash in sitar and distortion and reverb. The symmetry lives, however, in the more organic songs like “Squared Up,” a solemn Elliott Smith-sounding dreamscape.

Yin and yang. Paintbrush and guitar. Flight and death. All is in balance.