Dean Mayo Davies
As a teenager, Gary Gill would come home from school, get changed and head out to a gig. So it’s no surprise that, for this high-flying hairstylist, every look has a sound. Drawing on his experience of music subcultures from punk to ska and beyond, his work proudly serves a dose of realism.
I first met Gary Gill in London at Perry Ogden’s Paddy & Liam book launch. I’d been speaking to him on Instagram the week before as we’d both contributed to the book and I wanted to introduce myself. When he told me he was going to be at the launch I was really excited – I had been following his career closely for some time. For me his work has always been authentic and a constant source of inspiration. Some of my favourite moments of Gary’s include ‘Hairdresser On Fire’ with Johnny Dufort [seen in Man About Town Autumn/Winter 16] and ‘To The Bone’ with Casper Sejersen [Dust Autumn/Winter 2016]. I think this period of his work might have been the beginning of a manifestation inside Gary that would later be spawned into the form of his most recent project, ‘Metamorphosis’, a limited-edition monograph with Sejersen published by Beauty Papers. After multiple failed attempts to meet up due to work, it took Covid-19, a global pandemic, to line up a video call with Gary and find out how life has shaped his art.
Michael Harding: You recently made a mixtape alongside ‘Metamorphosis’, your milestone project with Casper Sejersen. I wanted to talk about some of the tracks you included on that. It was my first time listening to ‘My Father’ by This Mortal Coil and it really provoked me. It's such a beautiful song, with the piano and the echoing brass, and her voice is just very emotionally heavy. It’s very powerful.
Gary Gill: The whole album is like that.
MH: Yeah, I did some research on them. Were they before or after Cocteau Twins?
GG: It was around the same time and that was what got me into them. I was listening to so much very, very frantic music and I came across Cocteau Twins, leading me to 4AD, Bauhaus, The Birthday Party and of course This Mortal Coil. I needed something quieter in my life and This Mortal Coil and Cocteau Twins provided that for me. I ended up being really into that label and listening to so much of the stuff on there, which is now iconic I suppose.
MH: Was there a reason behind why you were listening to these things? You mentioned it was a bit more emotional… Were you living at home still? Had you moved out?
GG: Oh no, I’d already moved out, I'd started doing hair at that point, I was listening to all sorts. It felt like the first time I’d really connected to anything emotionally and I guess up to a certain age maybe you don’t. As a boy I didn’t – everything was sort of aggressive, quite angry and full-on. And I suppose I started doing hair and was feeling a bit more connected, a bit more comfortable and a little bit calmer. Doing that mixtape was really difficult – there were so many obvious things that were left off it. I had to dig deep to make a choice. When I first proposed it I said it would be 10 [tracks], then I upped it to 20, then 30. I still couldn't stop, but I had to because I was getting so frustrated. I started doing one for Mulberry, which had to be very British: it was a top 10 that evolved into a top 300! It just kept going on and on. It did really make me realise how important music is to me and what an impact it has made on my life, my creativity and who I am as a person.
MH: Definitely. When I find someone has quite an eclectic taste in music it’s because they’ve experienced a lot that has led to being part of certain cultural experiences. It’s quite funny talking about discovering music, bands and genres. For me, I was like eight years old, discovering my stepfather’s record collection. I was listening to Blondie on reel-to-reel and Heart on record and all of a sudden he’d blast a Marty Robbins tape, a country balladeer some of the biggest bad boys in country music were inspired by. So yeah, it’s really interesting. Did you have a lot of music playing in your household growing up?
GG: Yeah, my parents were really into music, my mum more so than my dad, growing up anyway. My mum’s musical tastes really rubbed off on me – she was into country and she was into rock’n’roll in its truest form I suppose, during the 60s. Recently I’ve discovered my love of 60s music again. I still have all my mum’s 45s, all her albums. I love the fact that my mum’s records have her name written on them. The reason being, everyone took records to parties and wrote their name on the label so they didn’t get mixed-up with anybody else’s. It means so much to me to have those records.
MH: It’s funny because I remember moving to London, about 15 years ago and partying in the East End – I couldn’t believe all the different genres being played by DJs [in the same set]. It was incredible. Did you have any preferred music scenes that you frequented when you were hanging out and partying with friends?
GG: Every music scene! Every genre, I’ve been there, done it! I was talking recently about how punk was a massive influence on me, I suppose it was the first thing I really attached to. I was still at school [in the 70s] and I would come home, get changed and go to a gig when I was 14 or 15. You weren’t asked for ID at venues or anything then. I grew up in Brighton which had lots of music, lots of youth culture, its own micro-scene – being an hour away from London it was a really great place. I remember the walk from Brighton station down to the seafront, being nervous; I’d never been to a punk gig before. And I remember walking into the venue and thinking, ‘This is it, everything in my world starts today.’ Just the thought of that is quite incredible. I’m always talking about the influence punk had on me; it’s not just the music, it wasn’t just the look, it wasn’t the hair or the clothes, it was the attitude. I suppose the next big thing that I was involved with would have been 2 tone and ska. You’d go to punk gigs and you’d find Rastas DJing, so reggae became a big thing for me. Afterwards I got into The Cure and Joy Division, then new romantic, hip hop and rave culture. The rave scene was a massive thing for me, and I guess visually. You didn’t get the same as punk but it was an attitude; the togetherness, collectiveness which I loved. And I was at an age where I could really take part in it.
MH: On the subject of punk, I’ve noticed that on the mixtape you’ve got some really strong personalities within that scene; Ramones, The Slits, The Lurkers. Do you think, as far as a music scene influencing your approach to textures and styling, that would be at the forefront?
GG: I suppose so, I’ve always used punk, and its DIY value, as a strong reference. It’s the reality of it I find so exciting. There was a lot of unemployment back then and punk was really born out of that. The fact that people did do their hair themselves, they did colour it themselves. There were no online tutorials, you just had to do it. And people used to make their own magazines, they were photocopied and they were stapled together. If you wanted to find something you’d have to go out and find it, I loved that so much. I sound like I might be being too nostalgic and I know times have changed, but for me it’s given me a work ethic… And this ‘reality’ I feel I can speak about and use as a reference point with genuine authenticity. I think my work has always had authenticity – it’s very important to me that it does feel real, and there’s lots of things I don’t do because I’m not feeling the reality of the project or the proposal.
MH: I think that’s why your work is so consistent actually: it’s unwavering. You can tell there’s a genuine relationship between the youth culture you’ve been a part of and the scenes you’ve experienced. I’ve been heavily influenced by skateboarding culture, I’ve skated my whole life and for me that’s really reflected in the work that I do: it’s more DIY in terms of the approach to hair styling, more lived in. At the moment, I find myself integrating different influences which are almost the antithesis to what I’ve always done – just a pinch of something. Is this something you’ve experienced? Revisiting something that you never necessarily would have been interested in?
GG: If I’m really honest, I think one’s career dictates that pace. I think you have to revisit things and readapt and remodel your approach, just to keep pace with yourself. I think one also has to be careful, because as much as it’s great to have consistency and authenticity, you have to evolve. And I’ve found that one’s career path and its trajectory forces one to evolve, which I’m very grateful for. I have had to spend time going back and approaching things in a new way, using different products and different methods, rethinking the way of attacking something without compromising style. I believe it’s very important. I constantly say to young artists: be known for what you’re good at, instead of trying to be all things to all people. Because what happens is that you end up in a middle ground where you’re not really known for anything. You’re better off being known for doing less than being unknown because you can do so much! This is very important advice that I was given a long time ago, and I wasn’t really looking for it then. But deep in my psyche I took it onboard and that message got stronger and stronger. You have to have a direction, you’ve got to say something. Only then did I realise how much I have to say.
I think one can end up being more successful by doing less. The whole less-is-more thing is so tired as a cliché in creativity but I can’t emphasise it enough. There’s such beauty in subtlety, such beauty in simplicity and such beauty in having a consistent point of view. I’ll stick by that and feel it all the time I’m working, all the time I’m getting requests. That way of approaching my work is very relevant and very valid.
MH: I mean, you can give that advice, but it also comes down to taste. Music and film have always been so important to me, and that’s always been a basis of my research. There are these moments in movies that I love, like Pretty in Pink, the last dance with Duckie dressed as a teddy boy. The hair looks great, there’s cool style, it becomes iconic. Have there been any films that led to obsessions for you?
GG: One of the films that made the biggest impact on me was Quadrophenia, with ska and mod music. It was filmed in Brighton when I was a young teenager and I remember walking along the seafront seeing Sting riding along on a Lambretta in that leather coat and tie thinking, ‘This is it!’ It was just this moment – even talking about it now I realise it’s made such a big impact, leading to my obsession with mod and ska culture and the 60s. Then there are other good films like Jubilee, which I suppose got criticised by the punk movement at the time but there were some amazing people in it. Sid & Nancy is another and The Filth and the Fury by Julien Temple. All those punk and youth culture films meant a lot to me. But if I had to pinpoint one it would be Quadrophenia.
MH: I feel that a lot of cinema has influenced photographers in relation to their photographic approach, composition and finish. For example there’s an Italian director of horror films called Mario Bava and he’s well known for doing saturated colours, double exposure and things like that. Then you’ve got Ingmar Bergman who does montages in black and white psychological narratives. Do you think the photographers you’ve chosen to work with on specific projects share an interest with you for obscure cinema?
GG: To be perfectly honest, the answer to that question is very unexciting and the answer is: no. I’m a big film lover, I find it a form of escapism. I love documentary film, I’m not really a fantasy lover. Everything has to be real, I have to feel it very, very deeply. And I suppose I've kept it slightly separate from my work over the years. I think when I have specific projects, the important thing in choosing photographers is my relationship with them on a human, one-to-one level. How I can work with that person and what space I’m being given to let the right thing happen for me. I’ve started projects with people and realised before the actual photographic part that maybe I’m not going to have the space I need. Obviously the style of work is very important and their point of view is very, very important – but more important than that is our relationship.
MH: You don’t have a preference of whether it’s digital or film? It’s the relationship with the photographer and the end result?
GG: Taking a step back towards the technicality, I find it very difficult to shoot a hair story on film. I have to be able to see virtually every single image that’s coming through in such fine detail. I need a full-sized monitor, right by me throughout the whole thing. I can’t leave it to chance, just looking through the camera isn’t a way of getting the subtleties right. And if we’re shooting a project over three, four, five days, I need to be able to review everything and go back and put stuff together and see where I am. So I’ve never shot a beauty project or a hair project on film. I’m a self-confessed control freak! It’s as simple as that. I need to know what’s going on, if I don’t I’m all over the place.
MH: I’ve got one more question and it’s a biggie: if you were stuck on a desert island––
GG: Oh God, here we go! [Laughs]
MH: What album would you have on repeat during your sunny isolation?
GG: Oh Michael, this is tough… Going back to an album that has so much influence over me, it would be The Slits and Cut. It’s got everything: it’s raw, it’s got that hybrid of punk-stroke-ska. That album keeps coming back to me, so that would be it!