The Magical Music of Harry Potter

Pete McKee on Raleigh, Working-Class Art, and his Upcoming Rough Trade Exhibition

18 July 19 interview: Dan Welton

Since he began painting in 2004, Pete McKee has been a constant presence in the UK art scene, offering a vivid and wide-ranging snapshot of working-class life. Ahead of his new book and a series of pop-up shows throughout the UK, in which he will exhibit in Nottingham's Rough Trade from the Wednesday 24 – Sunday 27 July, we met up with Pete to discuss rock ‘n' roll, caravan holidays, and stunt jumps on Raleigh bikes.

Hey Pete. How are the pop-up exhibitions going?
Really well, thanks. It's been a fantastic experiment because artists tend to just exhibit in galleries and hope people turn up, over the space of about five weeks. Whereas with this, I'm taking it directly to people. I liken it to being in a band; you get all your gear in the transit then stop up and down the country, playing gigs to a few people and seeing how they react.

Could you tell me about your new book Council Skies?
The book is an overview of how my style has evolved and my subject matter has developed since I began painting. I was brought up on a council estate in Sheffield and lived there for 35 years until my work started selling and I was able to move away and move on. For the majority of my life I lived on that estate, so all my memories and the things that inspire me are directly taken from my upbringing.

Working-class people are the stars of your art. What are the most enjoyable quirks of working life to draw?
For me, it's the older generation. I love drawing mums and dads, nanas and grandads; the ones who worked really hard all their lives just to bring us kids up, so we could go off and try to be in bands or be footballers. They sacrificed everything for the dreams we were allowed to have.

A lot of your work’s humour focuses on these older figures, celebrating small but precious victories, often in holiday settings. Are these moments from your own life?
It's directly my mum and dad who influence those sorts of things. When you're off for a week's holiday as a kid and your dad has done two weeks of overtime to get some extra pocket money. You're in a caravan – or if you're luxurious, a B&B – and just for one brief moment you can forget your worries. The nights on the caravan site are filled with entertainment, whether it's bands, discos, or competitions; you can embarrass yourself tremendously.

But there are other realities too, so I put a bit of pathos into my work as well. I have one painting called The Return of the Latch-Key Kid, who I was for a brief moment when my dad was still working and my mum had passed away; I had to let myself in after junior school and that's a reality for some children still today, although it's more frowned upon now.

Is it difficult to strike the right balance between humour and gravity?
No, not for me. I'm quite comfortable to adjust the two positions. Art has to connect with the viewer and if you're left blank when looking at a picture then the artist has failed to bring some emotion and soul to their work. You have to create a bond between yourself and the viewer and the two ways I like to do that is either through humour, or to be reflective of a situation and put that pathos in. They work equally hand in hand, because that's what life's all about; you're gonna laugh one minute and want to cry the next.

Your characters often strike me as dreamers and adventurers, particularly the kids flying down DIY ramps on their bikes. Was this one of your pastimes as a youngster?
Oh yeah, the Evel Knievel period of the seventies. Everyone wanted to jump over each other when stunt cyclists were at the fore. It was before Ataris came into our lives and our entertainment was outside. There was this kind of liberation and freedom to just run the estates and get into trouble, with some old lady telling you off because you were in her garden getting the ball or something. Obviously, this is with rose-tinted spectacles but it seemed a bit more liberated and free.

Any stunt bike-related accidents?
Oh well, nobody died. But you often ended up in the bath the next day or that night, slowly trying to dip your knee in the water because they were covered in grazes.

Rock ‘n’ roll stars feature heavily throughout your work. What is their significance?
It's replicating what my life was like, when you listen to Top of the Pops and one band cuts through the dirge and they look like nothing you've ever seen before. Their music hits you in the face and you run down to town on Saturday, hoping you can find the trousers they were wearing. And before you know it, everyone at school is wearing those trousers and you have to find another band you want to fall in love with. It's the power of music to change people’s lives and make you pay attention to yourself and how you want to grow.

Were you ever star-struck by any of the famous people you've worked with?
I once shared a flat with Richard Hawley; he was struggling as a musician and I was struggling as an artist and we lived together for about a year and then went our separate ways. Then he began selling his records and when I met him again in a pub, I was star-struck. We're good mates again now and we have a good natter but then it was really odd because I was tongue tied, seeing this person who had evolved and played with Longpigs and Pulp.

Then the first time I had any contact with Noel Gallagher was when I sent him an image, a print of a kid playing the guitar on his bed. One day I got a phone call from him and he thanked me for the picture and I just melted. I couldn't talk to him and stumbled on my words; I felt like I really cocked it up. But he phoned me back five minutes later to ask if I wanted to work with him. So I got away with it that day!

Mary O'Hara has written the foreword to Council Skies, having recently published her own book on the effects of austerity in the UK. How has the last ten years of austerity affected the way you portray class?
I did an exhibition last year called This Class Works and it was a response to how the media lambast the working class and portray them as scroungers. It's brutalism of the working class who are, in fact, grafters and the foundations of society. To survive on very small wages and navigate through life takes so much tenacity and will, and I wanted to show this inspiring side of being working class.

What are your favourite character traits of Nottingham?
You can't fault Nottingham because, like Sheffield, the people are honest and the town centre is amazing. As a kid I used to go into Nottingham to get my vintage clothes and music. It's got my favourite comic book shop too, Page 45. It's also very similar to Sheffield in that there are two football clubs, except Sheffield's haven't won two European cups!

I've read that Raleigh was a big inspiration for you. Did you have a Raleigh bike growing up?
Yeah, the Chopper was the bike for me. I got one for Christmas but it was second hand and covered in stickers so I wasn't under any illusions in that sense. But it was a Mark 1 which was pretty cool because it had a longer seat so you could get more people on the back. You couldn't go downhill by yourself on a Chopper, you had to have at least four others sat on the back. Although I wouldn't do a ramp on the Chopper; the Raleigh Chipper was the better one for jumping.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I'm working hard on my new exhibition and I'm trying to shake it up a bit, so there will be more to come from that.  What's struck me recently is how my work has subtly evolved and developed in its stylisation. I liken it to comic strips; when you see the first ever one published, whether it be Andy Capp or Calvin and Hobbes, the first ones are really primitive. But then five years down the line they're really sleek, beautiful drawings. It becomes this style you really recognise and that intrigues me. So I just want to work on my style and see where I can take it.

Pete McKee’s pop-up exhibition takes place at Rough Trade Nottingham from Wednesday 24 – Sunday 28 July

The artist is talking about his new book Council Skies at the venue on Thursday 25 July, 6pm. Tickets are £5, with all proceeds donated to SEND Project. Facebook event.

Pete McKee website

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