The artwork and music of Robert Beatty
Growing up in a small Kentucky town before the dawn of Internet-induced hyper-connectivity, a kid with creative tendencies and dreams of becoming a comic book artist had to seek inspiration in other places. For musician and graphic artist Robert Beatty, who grew up in Nicholasville, those places were predominantly magazines, cartoons and the weird, left-of-center music he heard on WRFL 88.1.
That radio station in particular grew to be a vitally important resource and inspiration for Beatty, who’s now based out of Lexington. The summer after he graduated from high school, he signed up to be a volunteer DJ at the station (at the recommendation of a CD Central employee who took note of the “super weird music” he was purchasing); he later went on to serve at the station’s art director for a number of years.
“There’s definitely a large part of my life where WRFL was the most important part of my life – everyone I knew and everything I did revolved around that radio station,” he said.
Indeed, it was through WRFL that Beatty and his close friend and frequent accomplice in musical endeavors Trevor Tremaine met Mike Connelly, Ross Compton and Matt Mentir, the five of whom made up the first iteration of the experimental noise band Hair Police in 2001 (the band eventually became a trio featuring Beatty, Tremaine and Connelly). With a sound defined by heavy distortion, feedback and general cacophony, the band initially had a loyal but limited following in Lexington – many people “thought it was a joke or something,” Beatty recalls. But the band became revered in certain circles outside of Lexington, catapulting its members into the weird and wild cult world of noise music; they toured Europe and the United States extensively, including a stint with Sonic Youth in 2004.
Beatty's cover artwork for his band's 2013 release "Persuasive Barrier"
Beatty's artwork for AIDS Wolf's 2011 album "Ma Vie Banale Avant-Garde"
Beatty's artwork for Burning Star Core's "Challenger"
Beatty's artwork for the album "Easy" by Real Estate
Beatty's artwork for Matt Duncan's album "Soft Times"
Though Hair Police has since slowed down its productivity – last year, they released their first album since 2008 – Beatty continues to be a revered figure in certain circles, particularly for his prolific album cover art, which has become an increasing focus of his for the past five or so years. He doesn’t downplay the influence that his work with Hair Police, particularly the connections he made during those days, continues to have on his day-to-day work.
“I never thought I’d be able to make a living through art,” he said. “The only reason I’m able to do this now is because I played in a noise band for years and years and toured all over the world – it’s crazy to think that because of that I have a career in art.”
Beatty’s designs can be seen on local show fliers and album covers for local and national bands; a handful of his album cover designs, including ones he designed for local acts Matt Duncan and Englishman, landed on several national “Best Of 2013” lists, including Pitchfork Media’s. Beatty, who records and performs solo music under the moniker Three Legged Race, was also the subject of a recent cover story for the venerable London-based magazine Wire.
“I’m starting to worry that because I’ve been getting so much press that people think I’m out of their league, which is not the case,” he said with a laugh.
Beatty’s visual aesthetic is reminiscent of 1970s psychedelia – lots of drippy objects and airbrush filters – and he likes to put his experimental electronic music in the “sci fi-horror” context. Interestingly, he relies heavily on the same process, collàge, for both his visual art and his music – taking simple images or sounds that are often unremarkable on their own, then texturizing, distorting or otherwise processing them into something new entirely.
“That’s a big part of what I’m doing – taking things out of their normal context,” he said.
Beatty’s most recent release, “Soundtracks for Takeshi Murata,” is the first that he has put out under his actual name, rather than the Three Legged Race or any other moniker. A retrospective of sorts, the album consists of several compositions he made to accompany films by experimental New York filmmaker Takeshi Murata from 2004-07. The two essentially met online over a mutual appreciation for each others’ work and have collaborated regularly over the past decade; Murata, who specializes in abstract animation, is coming to the University of Kentucky for a screening of several of his films, on Feb. 1, followed by a performance from Beatty as Three Legged Race.
Beatty describes the music for that particular project as “pretty abstract,” echoing the aesthetic of Murata’s films.
“Some of it’s harsh and noisy and some of it’s more ambient and pure,” he said, adding that “to a lot of people, it’s pretty ‘out there’ stuff.” He says his music in general, however, is evolving – whereas he used to perform with a complicated set-up using lots of synthesizers and machines, recently he has been performing with just a tape player and iPhone, which he processes and distorts previously recorded and found sounds through an app called Nanoloop.
“More and more I’m starting to structure more traditional songs and bring in elements of melody,” he said. “Before, everything was full-on electronic, but now there’s a lot of field recordings and acoustic instruments that I’ve recorded.”
Admittedly, Beatty’s take on “traditional” might be different from most – don’t expect folk songs or 4/4 time, although the most recent Three Legged Race album, “Persuasive Barrier,” does feature a dulcimer. As for the future, Beatty is planning a European tour in April, and has made a resolution for himself to spend more time drawing. He hopes to release a book of new art later this year.
Beatty’s music and art can be found at the following links.
Takeshi Murata Video Screening / Performance by Three Legged Race
8 p.m. Feb. 1
Center Theater (University of Kentucky Student Center)
WRFL, the University of Kentucky School of Art and Visual Studies and Institute 193 present an evening with New York-based filmmaker Takeshi Murata and musician Robert Beatty. Several of Murata’s short films which feature Beatty’s music will be screened, followed by a live performance of Beatty’s solo music project Three Legged Race.