Known Pleasures – Putting Pop Culture On Display
Interview with Mat Bancroft – Curator, archivist and Art Director
You would be forgiven for not recognising the name Mat Bancroft, however if you have one eye on the musical output and cultural importance of Manchester you would almost certainly have seen his work and maybe also visited an exhibition that he’s been involved in.
In his own words, Mat is ‘an independent curator, archivist and art director, specialising in 20th Century ‘Pop Culture’… Iain Key talks to him for Louder Than War.
To expand on Mat’s rather modest description, over the last 10 years he has built a reputation as a trustworthy and reliable archivist, working closely with the families of the Factory Records dynasty amongst others, and involved in the curation of two exhibitions celebrating the labels legacy, as well as the likes of ‘Fred Perry.’ He is also Art Director to one of Manchester’s favourite son’s, guitarist, Johnny Marr.
I imagine many people reading this would kill to have just one of those roles. I caught up with Nottingham born Mat, who first arrived in Manchester in 1998 to find out how he found himself with both.
“I came to Manchester to study ‘Design and Art Direction’ at Manchester Met. I’d only been to Manchester before as a kid but when I came to the open day it was a gloriously sunny day, Oxford Road was absolutely buzzing, All Saints Park was packed. I also had Leeds and Liverpool as options but came to Manchester first. They made me an unconditional offer straight away, which was great. I was prepared to consider my other options but my Dad, uncharacteristically said ‘well it’s not going to get any better than this is it?’… and I said, ‘well actually no’… so I accepted and that was it”
Were you aware of the cultural importance of Manchester before moving?
“Well yes, but not to the extent as after I’d been here a while. I was aware of certain elements of Manchester ‘pop culture’. At that point I was 18/19, I was a big Oasis fan and I knew The Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses as I had albums by them, but at that stage I wasn’t a massive fan of theirs, I was still discovering music from all generations, I was a fan of previous pop movements, reading magazines like Mojo and Uncut and interested in the history of music generally.
Then on the course I met people who lived in Manchester and were passionate about the city. The remit of ‘Design and Art Direction’ was very open and they pushed us to learning the history of the city in a cultural sense. In our first week, our second day (September 21st 1998) we had an introductory meeting and they said ‘we’re going to leave it now as New Order are playing in Albert Square (the handover of the Commonwealth Games) so we think you should go and see it.’ I think we got up there for the last two songs, after stopping for a drink on the way, not really thinking of the importance of it, but immediately we were being guided not just in Manchester History but Mancunian Culture as well… it was laid out for us”
You had a pivotal Manchester artist delivering some of your course, didn’t you?
“Yeah, Linder, Linder Sterling. I didn’t really know how important Linder was culturally when she was our tutor, she was telling us about things she’d done and was inspiring as an active contemporary artist, as she still is now. Looking back now I know why she’d be telling us about things she’d been directly involved in as a creator or as someone who was involved with that world at the time”.
Did you see differences straight away between Nottingham and Manchester?
“Definitely. At the time there were still a lot of places you could go to that had historical significance in Manchester and were still open so whilst you were learning about events you could feel and imagine how they’d been.
Nottingham, certainly when I was young at least didn’t have a predominant ‘pop culture’ that permeates the city in the same way as Manchester does or say Liverpool does. There is the odd thing but there’s no one really notable. You could probably argue that on a national conscious level that Jake Bugg was the first person that your Mum and Dad may have heard of, and that’s not to knock bands like Tindersticks or Six By Seven, but they’re marginal acts… but as a kid, no one was from Nottingham”
Manchester must have felt very different
“I remember just after I moved to Manchester, walking up Oldham Street and Mani was crossing the road. I now know that that is just normality, but as a 19 year old that was a big deal… and you could go to Dry Bar and you could see Tony Wilson walking around, you would see Johnny Marr, they were all part of the city, they weren’t distant, but accessible, not that I was going to bother them, but it was amazing to just see them.
I’d never experienced anything like that before. That ignited my desire to learn and experience more. I’ve lived in Manchester now longer than I lived in Nottingham; it feels like my hometown now”
You graduated with a BA Hons in 2001, what did you do next?
“The great thing about the ‘Design and Art Direction’ course was how free it was, in a sense you were able to choose what you did. In essence what I was doing was being a fine artist on a ‘design and advertising’ course, but really it was a ‘cultural awareness’ course and that’s the way I kind of used it and because of that, my fault not the courses, I left with no graphic design skills.
I left the course as a fine artist, or at least thinking like a fine artist and even though I could use Photoshop a bit, and Illustrator and other graphics programmes, and had some design knowledge, I didn’t really want to be sat behind a computer so I had to move away from it really.
I went to do work experience for 2 weeks with Trevor Johnson and realised during that time I wasn’t cut out for that world and it wasn’t a natural way of working for me and I wasn’t confident enough, or frankly good enough. I almost would have had to go away again for another year and re-learn those specific skills.
So, I went to work as a fine artist, whilst holding down a job, as many fine artists do, but then I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I was drawn to working with collages, then I was doing these large abstract paintings, I had a couple that ended up in Selfridges in Exchange Square”
How did that come about?
“I was working there, and one day they were talking about something and I just chipped in and offered to put something together for the spaces they had, and they agreed. I think they stayed up for a couple of years, but creatively I just drifted into my 30’s…”
What lead you to becoming a ‘Curator’?
“Well after working in retail roles for some years I decided to go back to University to do a Masters in Curating. I was thinking how can I use all the skills I’d learn from the jobs I’d done, managing people, managing budgets, being creative… and then realised I shouldn’t be the artist, I should be the person bringing the artworks together, having ideas for exhibitions…”
So, like someone wanting to be involved in music but not wanting to be the front man in a band?
“Totally, yes. I volunteered at Manchester Art Gallery, at first before I did my Masters, and they got me involved straight away working with the curator’s as I showed I had some skills and an interest and knowledge of pop culture which suited some of the projects they were working on.
I’d already started working with Johnny Marr which I’m sure we’ll come onto in a bit. I felt I could bring something to the team at the Art Gallery, even just as a volunteer and got to work on some really amazing projects” The team at Manchester Art Gallery were incredibly helpful, and gave me great guidance and opportunities.
Including ‘True Faith’ as part of the Manchester International Festival?
“Yeah, I worked on ‘True Faith’, they took me on as an assiatnt for that, so I got paid for it. It was absolutely perfect for me because it was a world I knew about, and by that point was a fan of all the bands. I had much more knowledge of Factory generally, the work of Peter Saville and New Order and Joy Division specifically, I’d read the books, owned the music, and was interested in all the people involved.
The exhibition was curated by Matthew Higgs and Jon Savage, and I’d got to know Jon well previously and had done some artwork for the cover of his book ‘1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded’.
True Faith was a pivotal moment for me and a very important experience. It directly connected me to the world of Factory, but also many important fine artists. It definitely opened some doors.”
From that to the ‘Fac 1-50/40’ at Chelsea Space in 2019 must have been a logical step? “
“Yes, it was. I’d been approached by a couple of people about looking to develop an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of Factory Records. I suggested that we bring Jon Savage in to co-curate with me and so we developed the Fac 1-50 / 40 exhibition which looked at the early years of Factory, using the first 50 numbered artefacts and supporting materials to celebrate this anniversary and shine a light on how incredible that early period was.
We’d tried to secure a Manchester venue initially but were unsuccessful and so we approached Chelsea Space and they agreed and so we developed the exhibition there. It was supported by Warner Music UK and I think was a really successful project.
The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester expressed an interest in developing the exhibition further and so the exhibition will be expanding and moving to S+IM in 2021. It was scheduled to open this year but was naturally postponed due to Covid-19.”
So, Johnny Marr?
“It was around 2010. I met Johnny whilst I was managing a clothes shop, and he was a customer and we got to know each other over time. We used to play interesting music in the shop so when he would come in, every now and again we’d talk about music and clothes and other things. His daughter then came to work for me, and that established a more direct relationship, and we became friends “.
How did you come to work with him?
“As I say we were friends for a while before I worked with him. At that time I had my own art studio, I was still in the mode of trying to work out if I wanted to be a fine artist or not and he was starting to develop his idea of going out as a solo artist post ‘The Cribs’.
We started talking about artwork and ideas for covers and he just said, ‘why don’t you get involved and we can work on it together’. At the time I didn’t think I would be the person doing the sleeves, and thought it would be great just to be involved, and be able to have conversations with people connected to that world, so I just got on with it really. I thought it was incredibly trusting of him, but he obviously saw enough to think ‘Mat’s going to do it, he won’t let me down”.
Was this for ‘The Messenger’
“Yeah, so we did ‘The Messenger’ album cover first, and the singles released from that album, starting with ‘Upstarts’.
We had a concept in mind and Johnny had clear ideas of what he wanted to say visually and how that would represent the music and what that tapped into, what was inspiring him etc, that then fed into the covers, videos and merchandise. We work with a graphic designer called Laura Turner and she is the 3rd part of the team and is the one who does the Mac work and brings our ideas to life. Sometimes it may be that I’m taking a photograph, other times it may be someone else but we’re picking an image and thinking about how we present it.
I will then take on the role of overseeing all the stages of design and production, making sure we have everything together, liaising with the record company and the management, bringing it all together”.
How did you find that the first time?
“It was an amazing thing for me to be able to do, that would have been my dream job when I was at University, I can’t think of anything better than designing record sleeves, it was always the most exciting thing you can think of as a graphic designer in my opinion.
I learnt so much, it was great being thrown in at the deep end, I had to learn quickly” .
From the record company perspective, did they just think you knew what you were doing?
“Totally, the way I looked at it was they didn’t need to know it was my first record cover.
I’m sure they could have probably worked it out, they could have asked for examples of work but they trusted me and let me get on with it, but even within the record company there is a whole team working on the project and there are a lot of stages so it wasn’t just me”.
… And then you become tour DJ?
“Well I’d done that anyway, I was DJ’ing with friends in Manchester, we used to do a night called ‘Strangerways’ in the mid to late 2000’s which was a great classic Indie / Soul / Rock n’ Roll Night, so I’d done that for a few years.
So, Johnny then said, ‘when I go out on tour why don’t you come with me?’
He had that concept of giving people a complete experience at the shows. All of the music I’d play prior to the support band and in between was all designed to put people in the mood or to give them a sense of what Johnny was writing about or influenced by at that time.
I guess it’s like a mix tape and taking people on a journey?
“Absolutely, a couple of people did mention that in reviews of gigs, and that’s how it was designed, in the same way that someone like Don Letts with The Clash would have done.
It’s about a representation of what the artist/ band is all about and saying to people ‘this is our world’ and inviting people into it. So, it was the complete package from the audience walking in at the start of the night to Johnny coming off after the encore.
Was the ‘curation’ of Johnny’s archive just the next step?
It just happened that I was moving into curation and archival work after completing my Masters, so it made sense to start working with people who had archives and documenting them.
When I’m working with archives, from my perspective I’m thinking of ideas for exhibitions and how projects can develop, so a big part of what I do now as an archivist is predominantly working with ‘pop culture’ archives, making items ‘safe’. A lot of people have realised that they’re sitting on ‘stuff’ which is very important, to them it may just be ‘stuff’ that’s sat in the loft, but actually it’s got a history to it and might be very very rare, and often culturally important.
When you get into the archives the interesting thing for me is that the items help tell a different story to the one that’s put out there by the bands and labels. You find interesting letters or documents or items which show how things work behind the scenes”
So, from the Factory Exhibitions and working with Johnny, are there any items that you’ve found which have really made you think ‘wow… this is…’
(Laughing) “Yes, there have been a few things, but I can’t tell you about them… but yes definitely there are… but as they’re not public knowledge I can’t disclose the info… I have found things though that you can’t quite believe you’re holding in your hand.
One example that is public knowledge, when we were working on the ‘True Faith’ exhibition the gallery had picked up the handwritten lyrics to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. The curator Fiona Corridan, and I went down into the art store to have a look at it, and it was amazing, genuinely ridiculous that a piece of paper can have an ‘energy’ to it, but it really did.
That piece of paper has an energy to it, in a film sense, when we opened it up you wouldn’t have been surprised if the lights had all gone out… On one level it’s just a piece of paper with pen on it, on another level, it’s a very personal statement by an artist which you now know the tragic story behind, and then it has this massive cultural importance, it means a lot to a lot of people, it’s Joy Division’s most famous song, it’s a modern classic without doubt, and so when you’re looking at these artefacts they do have a lot of power.
So that’s an example of an amazing thing… there’s probably nothing else that’s at that level but there are similar.
Is there anything you particularly enjoy when looking through things?
“What’s really interesting is the almost ‘day to day’ normality of people running a business, or band management, it’s the little things that are really nice, like seeing little notes, for example bits of art work for major records, and there is just a note saying ‘ask the band if they want it this way’… hinting at things that could be different from what we know.
They’re really nice as they are considerations, it just happens that the person that wrote the note, is well known, someone like Peter Saville, so you see the development of these cultural touchstones, which is a real privilege.
It’s not something that many people get to see, so that’s why I want to develop exhibitions to bring these pieces to people’s attention and combine the two worlds”.
At Chelsea Space last year there were a couple of interesting posters for nights at the Factory which I’d never seen before and thought were interesting
“It’s fascinating, especially with Factory, thankfully people have kept hold of things, and people at the time took it seriously, with a sense of humour, but they were aware that what they were creating was important. One of the posters we had in the exhibition, I don’t know if it’s true, but they say there were only 7 copies produced?
“Is this the Durutti Column gig that didn’t happen?
“Yes, the Paris gig. I found one down the back of a cabinet… it was amazing to find it.
I was acutely aware that we were doing this exhibition called Fac 1-50 so we needed the whole Fac 1-50 – if it existed, otherwise you open yourself up to people saying ‘well you’ve not done a very good job’… but if that’s true and there were only 7 printed, then there may now only be 2 or 3 left in the world. In one sense it was a gig that didn’t happen so why would you keep the poster?
There are a few rare things out there which people involved in Factory did keep, luckily. The great thing about working on the archives is trying to move them to somewhere where they will be safe for the future, which is the main thing, and keeping it in Manchester”.
As well as working with Johnny and doing ‘Factory things’ you’ve done a Fred Perry Exhibition
“It was a little exhibition for a new store they opened in Camden and I approached them as I used to work for them.
I suggested the idea of looking at the importance of Camden culturally, starting with the Roundhouse in the 60’s for the launch of ‘International Times’ and hit on specific marker points that were interesting and connected to the world of ‘Fred Perry’…
I was lucky that Jill Furmanovsky at Rock Archive kindly assisted with some images, we had some Sheila Rock colour ‘Clash’ images taken in the area and ‘The Ramones’ at The Roundhouse and then looking at ‘The Specials’, ‘Madness’ obviously as a local band and then looking how Camden became the centre of the world in the 90’s for Brit Pop and then ‘Amy Winehouse’ and the contemporary scene.
You recently worked on Derek Jarman’s estate and archive?
“That came through Jon Savage, as mentioned I’ve known him for a few years and have done some work with him. We’ve been working behind the scenes on other projects which will be happening next year and the year after… but the Derek Jarman work came through him as he knew Derek well.
That was a more direct archival project, producing a document of content, but was incredibly interesting as I knew of Derek Jarman, but not the sheer amount and variety of the work he had done, his cultural connections or many of his films”.
He was very young when he died?
“Yes, he was 52, very young. He left an important and varied large body of work and was active in the 1960’s in an art scene with a few key people slightly older than him. He went to UCL Slade School of Fine Art.
Derek never really stopped working it seemed, he worked in various mediums, whether it was an installation, film, painting, sculpture, or music video, and then he famously developed the garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness.
He was a very important guy and very influential, particularly for the gay community… someone who was openly gay, his sexuality was present in his work and he certainly wasn’t hiding anything.
When he was diagnosed as HIV Positive, he was one of the first public figures to be open about it and not ashamed and that gave a lot of people a sense of support and confidence.
He was a very impressive person.
One last question, you’ve come across and met a lot of people. Has there been anyone that you’ve been ‘star struck’ by?
“Quite a few really, I’m not good in those situations and I definitely freeze.
I remember meeting Kevin Rowland after the ‘Q Awards’ and couldn’t think of anything to say. I was quite intimidated by him as he’s such an amazing performer, but you know there is an edge to him, so you’re not quite sure how he’ll react.
I’ve been lucky with the people I work with. I have so much respect for them I would never want to be sycophantic or bother people connected to them. Johnny’s my friend, I’ve got to know him well, same with Jon Savage and I’ve got to know Peter Saville a bit and some of the people connected to Factory. I love these people’s work and being in their company is a privilege as you’re learning so much from them.”
I guess they’re just doing ‘their job’?
Yeah, and most importantly they are genuine people that are fans of Pop Culture as well, which means you like and share talking about music and films and art in the same way.
It’s a great equaliser, everyone likes talking about The Beatles… and everyone starts being ‘a fan’ suddenly, so it’s irrelevant how ‘famous’ you are.
It’s been nice working for and with them.
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