An interview with Martin Grover; maker of art, collector of records, air guitar hero

Martin Grover is an accomplished and inventive screen printer based in South London. He crafts beautiful paintings, prints and bus stop sculptures inspired by local cityscapes and parks in Brixton, West Norwood and beyond. His other haunting and melancholic compositions are based on anecdotes, poems and songs.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

That is quite hard to pinpoint. Probably nursery rhymes are most people’s introduction to music and song, then hymns via church and school. Transistor radios were wonderful portals to whole worlds of music and a most-treasured piece of technology. 

I can still remember the excitement of getting my first radio as a Christmas present at about 10 years old along with a single by Elton John, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’. 

We also had a family friend who used to empty jukeboxes, so we were often given a stack of quite worn-out singles and I remember making little balsa wood middles so we could play them on our Dansette record player. 

For some reason Lynsey de Paul’s ‘Storm in a Teacup’ rings a bell from these times, think I had a bit of a crush on her! ‘Hush Little Baby (The Mockingbird Song)’ was a real favourite of mine at primary school, I memorised all the words, though sadly can’t recall them all now. It’s a lullaby and a folk song and is both soothing and melancholic. 

Another record that had a big impact on me as a child was a compilation called ‘Children’s Favourites’. Stand out songs for me were ‘The Runaway Train’ sung by John Pertwee (who was the 3rd Dr Who), ‘The Ugly Duckling’ sung by Jessie Matthews and ‘I Know An Old Lady’ sung by John Pertwee, a funny, nonsensical and slightly surrealist song.

“I can still remember the excitement of getting my first radio as a Christmas present at about 10 years old along with a single by Elton John, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’”

Hearing 'In the Ghetto' by Elvis Presley for the first time when I was about ten or eleven was a real emotional jolt. I believe I understood at that moment without being able to vocalise it that the world and life in general can hold an almost unbearable sadness as well as immense beauty, and that describing, portraying and singing about that sadness could itself be a thing of great beauty; the song still gives me goosebumps even now.

I believe I understood at that moment without being able to vocalise it that the world and life in general can hold an almost unbearable sadness as well as immense beauty

What was the first album you bought and what do you think of it now?

Well, this is a difficult one to admit, wish I could say it was David Bowie, The Faces, The Kinks, T Rex, Mott The Hoople or something similar, but it was actually ‘Beach Baby’ by First Class. They tried to sound like The Beach Boys but were actually from East Sheen, South West London. It would be classified now as power pop but really it is just trashy pop. Listening to it now, I can see why an uncool and awkward twelve year would think it was great!

Can you play an instrument?

No, I am definitely someone who defies the adage that everyone can sing. I have no natural musical ability, cannot keep time and have real difficulty in working out what instrument is doing what when listening to music. To me, music is magical and I like to keep it that way.

“To me, music is magical and I like to keep it that way”

My godfather lent me an acoustic guitar when I was nine, it looked semi-electric and cool as hell. I joined the guitar classes at school, but it soon became apparent that learning music was like doing applied physics. Even though I appeared on stage at the Christmas concert, I was put in the back row and carefully managed to avoid actually strumming the strings. Air guitar was, and is, definitely my instrument!

What inspired you to start creating? When did you start making art?

I can’t think of any one thing or person that inspired me to start making art. Like a lot of things in life, my creative genesis was incremental. I always liked drawing and had a little bit of talent. I could always lose myself in art and still can. 

When I got into rock music at about age thirteen / fourteen I was always very struck by the album covers. People like Jim Fitzpatrick and Roger Dean were big influences at secondary school. 

Like many lessons at my school, art classes were often on the verge of becoming a riot, with the teachers struggling to maintain order. So, the lovely and stressed art teachers were more than happy to let the few kids who were interested in art to get on with whatever they wanted, whilst they sought to control the less artistically inclined kids. After Roger Dean I moved onto surrealism and Salvador Dali and Magritte.

How does music influence your art?

As previously mentioned, album covers were a seminal influence but as long as I can remember I have always worked with music in the background and more often as not in the foreground. 

A painting of the 'Paint It Black' record cover by Martin Grover
'Paint It Black'. Acrylic on canvas. 105cm x 105cm. Martin Grover 2017.

My practice is such a solitary one and the music keeps me company and definitely keeps me sane. In some ways I think my artistic practice has moved on very little since those early attempts at copying album art and typography at school and in my bedroom. I still remain in my small world copying someone else’s designs and artwork, though I like to think it is now done with a bit more skill and finesse.

“My practice is such a solitary one and the music keeps me company and definitely keeps me sane”

I have been painting portraits of old singles for about twenty years now. Originally, the paintings were lifesize and quite trompe l’oeil. However, I thought they would have more impact if I enlarged them and also would make all the typography a little easier and less fiddly to paint. 

This ongoing series attempts to capture the patina of age on these dog-eared, fragile, ephemeral and translucent paper sleeves. Unashamedly nostalgic; they radiate a halcyon glow; a celebration of a golden age of vinyl record production and graphic design.

A sepia-coloured screenprint by Martin Grover featuring a person climbing a telegraph pole
'Wichita Lineman'. Limited edition screen print (ed of 20). 56cm x 38cm. 45cm x 28. Martin Grover 2015

I have also used certain songs as sources for paintings and prints. Particularly I am thinking of ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, both of which have an incredible narrative that is truly inspirational. 

Musical influences have also cropped up in the bus stop art that I make. Initially I used certain song titles to fit on to my bus stops as reference to our lives meandering routes. Neil Young’s ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ fitted very nicely on to my pastiche bus signs and stops. 

So many songs reference travelling and place names that placing them on to a bus stop seemed to a very fitting and natural response. Now it has moved on to the point where I dedicate a whole bus stop to one artist or label, such as Motown, Philadelphia, Aretha Franklin, Talking Heads and the Kinks.

A bus stop sculpture by Marting Grover with the words 'Nowhere To Run'
'Nowhere To Run' bus stop sculpture by Martin Grover

Another series of paintings indebted to music feature some of my favourite singers roaming around Brixton and West Norwood, singing songs of love and regret whilst doing the shopping or just strolling through the park. This was initially inspired by someone who claimed to have seen Barry White waiting to cross the main road in Brixton, whether it was true or not I liked the idea of this giant of soul wandering around Brixton and used my artistic license to make it happen.

What is your artistic process?

‘Chaotic’ is the one-word answer! I have always tried to treat the artistic process like a job, which doesn’t sound very artistic. Ideas tend to arrive via the ether or tangentially, some consciously others unconsciously. A multitude of avenues are revealed, sketches are made and out of vagueness some clarity opens up, but it is a long and winding path or maze and usually the resulting image is a slight or major disappointment, that never matches the glorious imagery in my mind! 

So, then you sort of give up on it and move on to the next piece in the delusional hope that this will be your masterpiece! But, of course you don’t really want to produce a masterpiece otherwise your work is done and the only way is down, you always want to be travelling rather than arrive, or something like that...

I see everything as a potential painting or print. So as long as I can see, the inspiration is infinite. I am not very good at thinking deeply, so there are no real concepts or if it seems there is, then it is something that becomes apparent quite slowly, often tacked on after the event, sometimes many years down the line. But I guess that is also part of the artistic practice, the accidental, the unconscious – you create something in a vacuum and then like a magnet it attracts ideas and feelings that you didn’t know you were accessing. Often people come up with much better theories about my work than I could ever have dreamt up.

“I see everything as a potential painting or print. The inspiration is infinite.”

What do you listen to as you create? 

At the moment, my record player in the studio is not working, so mainly I am listening to a combination of Radio 4 and 6 and Radio London. When the hi-fi is fully functional, I listen to a mix of CDs, records and tapes, many compilations friends have made over the years – lots of old music.

I have also just been gifted two boxes full of those CD compilations that come with music magazines. It’s a good way to hear new music, otherwise I can get stuck in the past (though that is often a very fine place!). My most recent purchase is the fantastic album ‘Hypnotised’ by Linda Jones.

What is the worst earworm you have ever had? How long did it last?

Well, now you’ve forced me to re-listen to ‘Beach Baby’ by First Class it has to be that! As for how long it will last, I will have to get back to you…

What advice would you give to your younger self and other artists starting out?

Organise yourself, go to galleries more often, keep on learning new techniques and processes. Be more curious, don’t procrastinate quite so much! Be proactive. 

Self-doubt is not a bad thing, but let self-confidence have an equal billing. 

You've got enough change for three songs on the6ress jukebox. What do you pick?

Thin Lizzy, 'Whisky in the Jar / The Boys Are Back In Town'

Marvin Gaye, 'This Love Starved Heart Of Mine'

Terry Callier, 'Ordinary Joe / Look At Me Now'

Jean Plum, 'Look At The Boy'

Neil Young, 'Heart of Gold / Rocking in the Free World'

First Class, 'Beach Baby' (haha, not really)

I know that's more than three but in this imaginary world I just found another few quid in my back pocket! 

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We want to thank Martin for his stunning contribution to our second issue, CROOKED JUKEBOX available via our Etsy store this July. Proceeds will be donated to Girls Rock London.

Find Martin Grover at martingrover.com and on Instagram @martingrover__

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