Last weekend I had the pleasure of spending some time in a recording studio in Hong Kong working on some songs, including two days with an old friend of mine, Troy Campbell, a very fine drummer and painter – not an obvious combination on its face, but one that is very natural to him. This week sees the opening of an exhibition of his artworks at Aftermath Gallery in Hong Kong, Travelling Prayer; a parallel show, No Need To Be Coy, opens at Cloud in Phnom Penh on next Friday. We sat down in a Starbucks in Kennedy Town in between sessions to talk about music and art and Asia.
“I started playing snare drum very early on, in elementary school,” says Troy. “I was an incredibly shy kid and music kind of pulled me out, and music led to art. They kind of go hand-in-hand for me now – pun sort of intended – I was fascinated with Mad Magazine, comic strips, trying to draw Linus and Lucy to match Charles Schultz – like any other kid it was just sort of a healthy activity. But music really came first.
Art wasn’t far behind. “It wasn’t until high school and into university that art became a constant pull. I was noticing more art, I was noticing graphic design, and I was studying orchestral percussion. And so you find yourself walking by a painting studio with the smell of turpentine and linseed oil and think: what are these guys doing? Then I realised they were doing the same thing that I was doing in the practice room – a strong common thread.”
He sees commonalities extend from these outer physical manifestations to the mental and emotional requirements of creative behaviour. “The discipline is the same, the regimen is the same: it’s something that you have to do. I went from being a music student to being a graphic design student.” As if on cue, destiny sent in a character actor for a walk-on role. “An old haggard painting professor at the University of Georgia took me aside and said ‘You’re a painter,’ in that Tom Waits voice. ‘Oh, no, I want to be a graphic designer, I want to go make money.’ ‘No, you’re a painter.’
No regrets, though, Troy? “In the end it’s the same path. I feel lucky to have been able to explore this journey. Ultimately it led me into theatre, painting and playing drums, and I toured with two circuses, and I toured with a drumming troupe, and I’ve had a pretty wide variety of musical experiences, which ultimately led to the US Army, and South Korea, where I caught the Asia bug, and was introduced to this amazing creative culture. And for a pretty blue-collar boy Augusta, Georgia, son of a son of a Tennessee farmer, it’s pretty heady stuff.”
I was curious to know more about the link between drumming and painting. “I’ve always been drawn to mark making,” he says. “And that, to me, is drumming, that’s percussion. The brush and the drumstick, the dexterity – they’re really close, and really analogous. Call and response, you do something and then you respond to it. That really comes from playing drum set, responding to whatever the bass player’s doing. I could say it’s similar, but really it’s the exact same thing. A drum set and acoustic bass are two very different things, how do they become one?” Even within the drumkit itself: “The articulation of a cymbal and a crack of the snare drum: put those together, they become one instrument.”
We agree that as artists, we are both a product of our times and our inclinations. “My work is pretty old-fashioned,” Troy admits. “I’m not working in neon or fibreglass. Even in college I was written off as an old-fashioned modernist, and I can live with that. Miles Davis was an old-fashioned modernist but he kept exploring – and changed music three times. But music to me is something that I have to maintain, a certain skill set. Luckily, the drumming exactly informs the art. Does the art inform the music? Maybe, in some way I can’t define. Maybe it’s the result of having a broad palette, having studied timpani quite seriously, and also being a fan of The Cramps and the Ramones and Television.”
The work for both exhibitions was created in a very small teachers’ apartment in Jeonju, South Korea, a mid-sized city in the south west part of the peninsula. “I’d come home from getting sneezed on by second graders – and my home was my studio, my other work environment. Maybe it was a counterweight to the teaching day; it also reflected just being in a pretty amazing setting.”
His love affair with Korea – and Asia in general – began through another career choice. “I served in Korea for a little over two years with the US military. I found myself absorbing the great colour schemes – [in my work] you’ll see a lot of what I call analogous colour, putting two different greens together, seeing how they work together. And that, to me, is music.”
Again and again, we go back to the easel, the keyboard, the fretboard. “I heard someone accuse Van Morrison of writing the same song over and over and over again; the same person said: but I like the song. I like that notion. I probably do the same piece over and over and over again, that’s my work. Sometimes I wish I could say I want to do a show in sculpted aluminium – and maybe someday – but the time comes when you just have to sit down and work. You can’t wait for the lightning bolt to strike. I like what the artist Chuck Close said: inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”