Jack Ladder purrs with confusion and malevolent confidence in his latest film clip, Tell It Like It Is. Oscillating between sexual prowess and a vulnerable heart, the video, directed by Mclean Stephenson explores sex, taboo and humour. Cleverly subverting the commanding dominance of the lyrical content and the sexual submission of the imagery, his latest video leaves us stinging but wanting the truth. RUSSH speaks to the two artists and friends involved in making BDSM funny and bongos sexy …
RUSSH: How long have you known each other? How does the personal and creative relationship between you work?
Jack Ladder: Mac and I met 12 years ago. Back when he still smoked Pall Mall. We mainly drank wine together on his balcony until he started carrying a camera with him everywhere he went. He would photograph shows to practice. He took the first photos of me where I thought that I looked like myself and introduced me to some of my favourite authors. We donʼt talk too much about what weʼre going to do. Heʼll tell me if Iʼm doing something stupid with my face. That said, neither of us are particularly worried about making things pretty. I think we both look for honest moments. I feel comfortable enough with him to make a video like this. I trust him with my life. Or at least my career.
Maclean Stephenson: I've known Tim for years. Since he was a real young gun. A teenager even. He used to play Moon River on his guitar and drink wine on my balcony. Years later he was a groomsman at my wedding. He got up on the stage with Donny (Benet) and sang Bette Davis Eyes. He's one of my main guys. Our creative relationship - we don't really talk about things like that. We just get the same stuff. With exceptions - like Tim is a big fan of The Blue Nile and I watch torture films. I actually did a lot of stuff for his Hurtsville record. He recorded that in an old castle in southern NSW in the dead of winter. I went down there and photographed it all, Tim by the fire stressed out and smoking, Kirin [J. Callinan] dressed as a matador facing off against real bulls (they had bulls on this property and I got stampeded by them and that's the truth), Don and Larry being total pros. I shot the cover for that record and we also published a photobook ... might even still be for sale.
R: How did the concept of this video come about?
JL: There was an earlier concept that involved a small dog on a beach at night. It seemed over cooked. I always thought there should be a shot where I was bent over a table being paddled by a dominatrix, singing through the pain. Mac suggested we focus on that one shot.
MS: From memory I wanted to film Tim walking around like a blind man with a tiny companion dog on a leash. Like a little guide dog. Just because he’s 7 foot tall and it would have looked absurd. Then Tim said he wanted to do a scene where he was getting flogged. And I thought maybe we should just cut to the chase and do a torture film.
R: How does it link to the song?
JL: For me the song has a violence to it, itʼs about wielding silence in a malevolent way. The idea of BDSM is a physical interpretation of that. There are sounds in the song that remind me of whips and the chord progression is kinda kinky. Itʼs basic tension and release.
MS: I'll leave this one for Tim.
R: In which ways do you see this video as confronting?
JL: The actions are real, so in that way what you see is genuine pain and a sense of fear as Iʼm singing. Red wine burning my eyes. Real choking with a splitter bar. Alys hitting my face and walking on my head with perspex heels. I didnʼt know Alys very well so wasnʼt sure of what she would be capable of. I felt the discomfort of those things but I think itʼs done in a controlled playful way so for me thereʼs nothing particularly confronting about it.
MS: I don’t think it’s confronting. That’s me though. I think it’s funny. It was funny to make. It’s not every day you get to tie one of your good friends to a table and direct someone to flog them for eight hours.
R: Do you fear censorship?
JL: Iʼm not afraid of censorship. Iʼm more concerned for my work being confused and mistaken for something that itʼs not.
MS: I don’t fear censorship, but I don’t like it either. I particularly don’t like the whole trigger warning, safe-space world of grievance politics and the type of moral censorship that comes with it. It used to be that moral censorship was the purview of far-right conservatives and religious fanatics. Now we have to cop it from our own. It’s not my scene. And there are a few reasons for that, not the least of which is how dull it is, how flattening, how pastel, how devoid of risk and desire. But also because I don’t think everyone is a delicate fucking flower who should be wrapped up in wool and made to feel safe. Because the world is not a safe place. On the contrary, it is indiscriminately and routinely violent. I think its better we prepare ourselves for that.
R: Is there anything within this video that you perceive as still being transgressive? Or is it the prudish nature/ self righteousness of internet warriors that maintain this idea that BDSM or bongo solos are taboo?
JL: When we finished shooting I did have a sense of dread, that Iʼd crossed a line. After seeing the rushes I wasnʼt worried. The bongo solo is probably the most transgressive moment in the video. It was a strong vision that Mac had from the beginning that he committed to. He made his dream come to life. Now when things are becoming overwhelming I can go to that place in my mind where I am ascending on the bongos …
MS: I don’t think this video is transgressive. Not to anyone who has ever read crime fiction or played a modern video game. Not to an Alice Cooper fan. But there is always a chance that it will upset an internet troll and cause a pile on. That’s just the world we live in. As for bongo solos, the last 20 years has been unkind to them. They have been marked as deeply uncool. I wanted to do something about that. And look, I’m not scared to admit it, I’m a bongo guy.
R: What role does sexuality and dominance play in both of your respective arts?
JL: Iʼve been looking back over my records lately. Not a favourite past time. I was doing a retrospective show trying to make sense of my life and how I came to this point. Itʼs hard to ignore that a huge part of my work is devoted to sadomasochistic themes and self destructive behaviour. A lot of my songs are about being controlled and breaking free from control, either sexual or substance. This could be the video Iʼve been moving towards for years.
MS: My photography practice involves a lot of nudity, so sexuality (in the narrow, libidinal sense), or questions relating to it, seem to surround what I do. Also, a lot of people see my work as having sexual undertones. That’s not something that I consciously set out to do though. Sexuality is not a theme I’m particularly interested in addressing through my work. Not for the time being at least. I am, however, interested in human vulnerability and ambiguity. Questions concerning sexuality arise in those contexts. Similarly, questions concerning dominance can be read into my work. People do it from time-to-time. Exploitation is another one. Again, these aren’t themes I set out to address, but that doesn’t invalidate those readings of the work. It’s not my role to interpret what my work means.
Jack Ladder's Blue Poles is available through Barely Dressed Records (AU/NZ) and Terrible Records (US)