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By Mick Heaney (18 April, 2004, Sunday Times)
He set fire to a fortune, and now the KLF founder Bill Drummond's new project will see him serving soup across the British Isles. By Mick Heaney
It was, it seemed, the moment to which his life had been building up. Since the age of 17, everything Bill Drummond had done was affected by his three years as an art student in Liverpool in the early 1970s -and he had led a more varied life than most. By 1993, Drummond had enjoyed stints as a pop star, a successful rock manager and a cult author. What linked and informed all these careers, he says, was his understanding and knowledge of the history of art. Now he was about to make his own contribution to that history.
With his collaborator Jimmy Cauty, Drummond arrived on the Scottish island of Jura with Pounds 1m in Pounds 50 notes, money they had earned from their hits during their career as dance-pop pranksters the KLF. They went to a boathouse, lit a bonfire and, with a camera recording the event for posterity, proceeded to burn the money.
At the end of the night, all Drummond and Cauty had to show for their efforts was a film called Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, and an enhanced reputation as anarchic art pranksters. To those on the outside, it did not seem a great return for such an outlay. In the intervening years, the Pounds 1m question has remained: what did Drummond and Cauty hope to achieve?
"Very simple: to burn a million pounds," says Drummond. "Did we achieve that? Some of the notes went up the chimney and ended up on the beach so we didn't actually burn a complete million.
"We hadn't got a fixed view of what it was about or what it should be about. We felt we should be able to give people a good reason why we did it, especially to our families, and we realised we were never able to do that. And the more we tried to explain it away, the more it took away whatever meaning it might have. So we decided not to."
The pyre of banknotes turned out to be the closest thing Drummond has made to a defining statement, but not for the reasons one might expect. For a man often portrayed as a supreme media manipulator, Drummond's endeavours have never been framed in neat terms, preferring to leave the impression that his work -art, writing and music -is ad hoc in conception and execution.
His latest venture, the Soup Line, is typically vague yet sweeping. Drummond has drawn an imaginary line from Belfast to Nottingham and all points beyond in Britain and Ireland, and -if asked -will come to one household in each town on that line and make a hearty vegetable broth he calls big pan soup. The Irish leg runs from April 30 to May 6, when he is based in Belfast as part of the Cathedral Quarter arts festival, but he is also prepared to visit towns such as Maghera, Dungiven and Carrigen with his soup tureens should his services be required.
It may sound arch and knowing but for Drummond it was an impulsive idea. He had already made soup for a bunch of artists and students in Belfast in 1998, an incident detailed in his riotous memoir, 45. Then one evening last year, he made soup for a family in Nottingham as a prize from another project. He enjoyed the experience so much that when he got home late that night he came up with his latest concept.
"The next morning I still liked the idea that there was this thing called the soup line. And that's all it is. It's a line through these islands where I can go and make soup."
The Soup Line may not have the art-terrorist flavour of Drummond's pranks with the KLF and its quasi-institutional successor, the K Foundation, when he dumped dead sheep at the Brit Awards, or gave Pounds 40,000 for the worst art in Britain to Rachel Whiteread, winner of the Turner prize.
Nevertheless, the project bears out Drummond's distrust for all things metropolitan, trendy and overblown. Not for nothing did he spend the 1970s and 1980s shunning London for Liverpool, where he managed the careers of indie bands Echo and Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. And he is drawn to Belfast over Dublin for similar reasons.
"I think from a creative point of view -whether it's theatre, music, any of those things -it's easier for things to evolve away from the hot spot," he says. "My preference for Belfast is obvious to me: it's not as full of itself. If I go to Dublin it just seems so willing to whore itself to the world. And you don't get that from Belfast."
In conversation, the South African-born, Scottish-raised Drummond displays a disconcertingly sincere streak which values honesty and authenticity, especially when allied to anarchic ventures. "I'm never jaded," he says. His chaotic management of Echo and the Bunnymen in the early 1980s was typical, making impulsive decisions based on aesthetic and conceptual grounds rather than careerism. Little wonder he was suspicious of the wide-eyed ambition of the Bunnymen's Dublin contemporaries, U2.
"I've never been a particular fan of U2: I've never liked that big sweep," Drummond says. "I met Bono once, on Top of the Pops, and he was very much: 'Hey, we bands can change the world'. And it just wasn't where we were coming from in Liverpool. In one sense U2 and the Bunnymen both came out of that post-punk thing, but our aesthetic in Liverpool was so not America, not stadium and not all of the things that U2 either aspired to or were good at."
Drummond's pop-management career fizzled out in the mid-1980s, but soon afterwards he found himself a pop star -albeit an elusive one -when he and his friend Cauty embraced the sample-based culture of hip-hop. As the Timelords, they released a number one single, Doctorin' the Tardis and subsequently published a book on how to make a chart-topping single, The Manual.
Drummond and Cauty then reincarnated themselves as the KLF, scoring a series of techno-pop hits that defined the hedonistic rave scene of the early 1990s while casting a wry eye over it. No other producers would have dreamt of using country singer Tammy Wynette on a dance single.
"To an extent we were playing with the genre, with the medium of it, but at the same time we were doing it for real," says Drummond. "It was driven by a love of what we were doing, not a Pete Waterman- type cynicism. We were making the best records we could. Whether it was with the Beatles or Kraftwerk, I've always loved the fact that you could use not just the records but the whole way pop music works, to communicate ideas and flavours.
"And because it wasn't my whole life, I was able to extricate myself from it when what I was involved in still had currency. I knew that it wasn't something for someone who was entering their middle age either. And this is a really obvious, middle-aged, crap thing to say, but I think music as a form of expression for young people is past its high point as a cultural phenomenon."
Instead, Drummond and Cauty embarked on their career as the court jesters of the 1990s British art scene, scoffing at its hubris while embarking on ventures which began to look suspiciously like attention-seeking stunts, particularly when the duo demanded the involvement of the media. After an ethically dubious scheme to distribute thousands of cans of strong Tennent's Super lager to the homeless on Christmas Eve attracted little notice, Drummond changed tack.
"I wanted to do things that didn't need the media for them to exist. If you've gone through that high-visibility thing, you think you want the media attention for what you do, that it's a good way to communicate what you're doing -but it works against it. You spend your time saying, no, I didn't mean that, it wasn't about this or that.
"I didn't sit down and rationalise this. It was just something I became aware of over a period of time. And maybe the Tennent's thing was the turning point."
Since then, Drummond's work has been more reflective but no less stimulating, starting with 45, which mixed elegiac reminiscences with frank assessments of his work. "I thought of that book as my half-time. I'd done the first 45 minutes, and I was taking stock of the game so far. I was also 45 when I started writing it.
I'm now 50, and I'm looking forward to the next 45 minutes."
Just what the future holds is unclear, least of all to Drummond, though it is unlikely he will attempt to court the notoriety he enjoyed in the past: "There's no way I could carry on shocking people. Not that I've ever attempted to go out and shock people."
Instead, funded by the pop revenues that did not go up in smoke, Drummond prefers more participatory projects that verge on the anonymous. There is Mydeath.net, an interactive website for preparing one's own funeral; the Curfew Tower, an artists' residence in Cushendall, Co Antrim; and, of course, the Soup Line. He thinks this latest project will work for a simple reason -it could be a good, weird night.
"I like being able to do stuff where it's not me fronting it; that doesn't even have to have my name attached to it," he says. "The million quid thing is very straightforward, very obvious. What I do now could be perceived as far more indulgent, though of course there's nothing more indulgent than burning a million quid. But I suppose my ego likes to think that in the fullness of time what I'm doing now will have a currency and a meaning. Even if I don't know what the meaning is.
The Soup Line, Ireland runs from April 30 to May 6; for further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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