The Real Deal
By Nick Pelling
Many of us have no doubt dreamt of being an artist; breaking the digital chains that now ensnare us all. But reality, in the form of needing to eat and pay the inflating bills, tends to squash our dreams. On Kings Road in St Leonards, however, there exists a couple with that rare combo of obstinacy, poetry and artistry that has given them the true grit to live the bona fide bohemian life. Not dilettante weekenders but the real deal.
I caught up with Jude Montague and Matt Armstrong earlier this month in their shop cum studio. In fact, to think of it as a shop is a bit wrongheaded. What they have created at number 15 Kings Road is a double world, a split universe. Upstairs – with its heavy antiquated printing press and wonderful sprawl of images, some on the wall, some on shelves and some on the floor – is where the visual art happens. Quite deliberately the two have tried to create a venue that blurs all the lines between shop, studio and gallery. As Jude says, “It’s great for people to look at art whilst also seeing art being made.” Just as importantly, they try to keep prices down so that almost anyone can afford a print. The works are made to fit regular sizes so frames might remain relatively cheap. Specialist framers can be horribly expensive indeed. There is a real commitment to make art within the community that is available to people. The prints themselves are often figurative but with more than a twist: think dissident Polish or Czech poster art.
Jude has also produced two autobiographical graphic novels: Love on the Isle of Dogs and the more visually rich Breakfast in Shoreditch. The two works are held together by Jude’s deceptively scratchy, beautiful, almost childlike drawings but the content is both painful, uplifting, bleak and amusing in shifting measures. In an apparently cartoonish style, one is led through some dark passages of her life but ultimately, I think, towards light. And maybe just a little bit of wisdom.
Overseeing Jude’s working area is a beautiful black and white collie-cross by the name of Arial who seems very happy to monitor human foolishness. When Matt and Jude take me downstairs, I am taken into a wonderful musical underground: an Aladdin’s Cave of all sorts of instruments, recording kit and a baffling array of wires and gizmos. What struck this writer most forcibly is that the stuff is somewhat retro. There is, for example, an Italian style Vox Continental (with the reverse black and white keys) which is so much associated with a sixties sound, such as in The House of the Rising Sun. There are also Farfisa and Crumar keyboards, each of which has its distinctive audio-niche in pop history. (The fact that so much of the instrumentation has an Italian connection reflects what Jude calls her “Italian obsession”) In and around these venerable instruments sit numerous guitars and a dignified double bass. Matt is an extremely versatile musician, but the double bass is perhaps where he feels most at home. Certainly, even his casual playing of the upright bass seemed to slide straight into what used to be called ‘a groove’. There are old-school amps and even reel-to-reel recording tapes and Matt has even made his own spring-loaded reverb unit that is delicately bolted to a wall. He is, in some ways, a hands-on maker and mender; he takes great pleasure in repairing old and broken instruments. The two do not reject modern digital layered music but believe that the real emotion lies in direct vibration. It is not a rigidly purist philosophy, but it has a sense that music ought to be somehow authentic or ‘real.’ It is a complicated issue in truth, but there is much to be said for actually playing live and, as Matt says, “just point the microphone and press record.” Who knew?
It would be easy to assume that upstairs is Jude’s domain and downstairs is Matt’s, but this would be wrong. They are undoubtedly a team: she plays keyboards and sings while Matt plays almost anything and can also sing, it turns out. But they are also a team in a deeper sense: psychologically. emotionally even sartorially. They have already released one album and are now working on a second. The music is hard to describe: a bit retro but not in that tongue-in-cheek fashion that can so often seem a bit too ironic for its own good. The respected critic Richard Sanderson captured a flavour of it when he instructed us to “Imagine a world where the sounds of sixties test card music” had been “picked up by aliens, improved, and then sent back to earth.” To put it in a more prosaic fashion, they are both committed to the idea that music should have a decent tune. An alien notion indeed.
The journey of these two troubadours is individually complex and convoluted. Jude is a Manchester girl who studied English Literature at Oxford and gravitated to London via Sumatra. Her London years were full of contradictory energies: like so many talented people, she had abilities pulling her in all directions. For a while she toyed with an academic career and even achieved a PhD in Early British Film History. She worked for a while as a film archivist for Reuters. But Dr Montague perhaps found her most meaningful self when she studied printmaking at Camberwell. It was there that, in her own words, she “went crazy” for print. Matt, on the other hand is an East London chap through and through, who has turned his hand to everything from acting to sound recording to session music to professional screen printing but throughout all manner of jobs he has not compromised with the sensible-suited world. Curiously, it wasn’t until they met second time around in the circles of London’s Billy Childish world that they felt the natural click.
They came to Hastings a few years ago when they discovered the then rather dingy shop on Kings Road. The two of them spent years getting it into its current rather splendid, functionally ambiguous format. As Matt says, “This is it – what we dreamed of.” Stepping back a bit, one has to admit it is rather wonderful. A sort of playground for adults: a portal to an alternative world that is nevertheless solid and real and indeed, ink splattered. In Breakfast in Shoreditch, Jude’s inky self, comments that she “has a tendency to wander from the road of logic and sensible thinking”. Matt is clearly a fellow traveller. Along with Ariel, they are perhaps in a deep sense ‘off to see the Wizard’. To borrow a profound question from another tuneful bass player, Paul McCartney: “What’s wrong with that? I’d Like to know.”
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