I’m a graphic designer, cartoonist, and the guitarist in the rock duo Mecca Normal. We have released 13 albums on labels including K Records, Matador and Kill Rock Stars. As a graphic designer I created the poster series “Inspired Agitators,” now archived at The Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, and I designed the t-shirt “Actually, I like crap.” I do a weekly illustration, with text by my Mecca Normal bandmate Jean Smith, for Magnet Magazine. I live in Vancouver, Canada.
My first book was called The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism, (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2006, Winnipeg). It’s a book of statistics that are, on their own, disconnected facts and figures. I made some rather abstract associations and calculations to give readers an emotional impression of poverty, capitalist greed and the violation of human rights. For example: a child dies of hunger every seven seconds, meanwhile there are 400,000 liposuction operations every year in the USA. I got the idea for my second book, the graphic novel The Listener (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011) after stumbling on a brief account of the Lippe election in a history book about Hitler. After more research, I realized the story of the Lippe election had never been fully explored in English. I thought it would make an incredibly exciting project to bring to life as a graphic novel. This led to my first draft. I researched, wrote and illustrated the novel over a period of seven years. Of course during that time, Mecca Normal wrote, recorded and toured an album called The Observer and we gave lectures and had art exhibits. If anything, I had too much information and I had to cut out quotes and details that didn’t have a place in the story. At that time, the inability of political parties to work together, particularly the Communist Party and the Socialists, contributed heavily to Hitler seizing power. Those relationships would require entire books to describe. And I had a lot of scary quotes from other Nazi party officials that didn’t make it into the book.
The drawings are a combination of pencil, pen, watercolour and acrylics. For some of the images I ripped or cut the drawings and reassembled them to achieve a sense of movement. The Listener is influenced by film techniques such as German expressionism and film noir, and the work of Hitchcock and Orson Welles. I also took great inspiration from paintings and drawings by Jean Smith, my partner in Mecca Normal. I admire her fluidity and I applied that to my work for this book. The Listener has two main story threads. One is the true story of the last democratic election to take place in Germany (Lippe) before Hitler seized power. And the other is a fictional story of an artist who makes a piece of art that inspires political action that ends in tragedy. The connection between the two stories is art and politics. Aesthetics were an important part of Nazi ideology, while in my fictional story, the artist believes the blending of art with politics is a valuable part of progressive social change. My protagonist Louise is searching for reasons to continue making art; she isn’t at her most confident and her attitude and body language intend to reflect that. She is a complex character. She’s a bit pretentious, very talented and intelligent, but not always likeable. She isn’t another souped-up, unrealistic version of a woman. I drew her without exaggerated features or smoothed out imperfections. I’m challenging how women tend to be portrayed in the overwhelming majority of mainstream media including advertising, movies, and graphic novels. I wanted Louise to resonate with readers as a realistic character, like someone they might know. She’s not there to say being a political artist is easy so get on with it. I’ve shown her in times of quandary and distress, how individuals might in fact respond to being wrongly blamed for something. She is, by nature, introverted and she is searching within the history of Europe for reasons to return to her art-making, which, like most artists, is conducted in solitude. There is something symbolic about showing a female character realistically operating within a story about spin-doctoring and manipulation. Women have obviously been consistently misrepresented within the media since there was media to misrepresent them with. Louise is a kind of metaphor for truth against the backdrop of Hitler’s lies and manipulation in general.
I wanted Louise to reflect the reality of how many creative people speak. They do in fact quote other artists. They do in fact struggle with concepts and try to articulate them, often awkwardly.
Art has a long history in progressive social change. We saw the significance of songs, posters, and street art during the recent uprising in Egypt. In Israel, Palestinian graffiti artists have led the fight against the “wall” with their bold and defiant art. In the U.S., several books of collected political graphics have been put out by Josh McPhee of Justseeds, and Jean Smith and I are slowly working on The Black Dot Museum of Political Art as a viable way to exhibit art by cultural activists.
I’ve primarily been a visual artist and a musician, but I am also very influenced by film, I’ve studied film. While I was writing The Listener, I was thinking that it would also make a great film, perhaps with some animated segments. Regardless, it’s an important story, but at its core, it’s a small story. Three people are facing the past and the future, assessing their actions in terms of regret. One important theme from The Listener is that clearly, how we act as individuals really matters. And that is something Jean and I have been saying for years in interviews, with Mecca Normal and in our classroom presentation How Art and Music Can Change the World. Even though I don’t speak during Mecca Normal performances, Jean and I have always had amazing conversations about events in the world over our 25 year history and we have always sought out interview situations, not essentially to talk about our band and the new record, but to make an opportunity to try and inspire people towards creative self-expression that intends to create progressive social change. Creating the lecture brings that interview content into our presentation.
I have ideas for other graphic novels. I’d like to utilize what I’ve learned about creating the structure of the book and the story, but as with any big project, you have to balance how it fits into other parts of life. Because I used my wife as the model for Louise, she was involved in the project in that way. Drawing her was a good balance to doing all those drawings of Hitler.
I have two other book projects in mind. One is a book about political art in general and the other is a collection of my poster series “Inspired Agitators” which was the inspiration for the lecture that Jean and I have been presenting. Ideally Jean’s third novel will be published and the focus of how we tour next will be decided by what comes out next. A book, a CD or another art exhibit. We recently did a tour in Canada to support The Listener and Jean created an adaptation that included Mecca Normal. We had a power point presentation and Jean cleverly brought the two female characters to life and she coached me into being Rudolf. So Louise arrived to talk about her role in the story and then Marie dropped by to talk about regretting that she and Rudolf had at not taken action to stop Hitler, and Rudolf chimes in about how important history is. Hitler also makes an appearance. After we do all that, Mecca Normal plays some songs that correlate to that material. We have a song called Malachi (K Records, 2010) about a political activist whose life ended tragically. Jean introduces that song, making that connection, and we also use Mecca Normal’s history as an example of what the book brings up in terms of cultural activism and political art. Mecca Normal is preparing to record and no doubt, the work we’ve been doing recently, art and activism, will make its way into the remaining songs to be written. It seems there are usually common threads through the work we create together and independently.
The Listener was a finalist for a ForeWord Reviews‘ book of the year award in 2012. Mecca Normal, in 2012, recorded an album in Miami, Florida with Kramer as producer and Rat Bastard as engineer. In 2013, I started work on a graphic novel about Emma Goldman.
David Lester Selected Chronology:
1958: Born in Vancouver.
1969: Organizes a protest for student rights at his elementary school.
1973-75: Illustrates/writes a monthly comic for FPS: A Youth Liberation Magazine (Ann Arbor, Michigan).
1977: A member of the collective that produced Open Road, an international anarchist newspaper out of Vancouver, which featured his poster of Emma Goldman.
1978: Plays guitar in the rock band The Explosions who release a 7″ featuring a prison protest song, which they play opening for The Talking Heads.
1979: Squats in Hackney, London, England for a year.
1984: Designs album cover for punk band D.O.A.’s ep to benefit striking British miners.
1984: Forms punk duo Mecca Normal with Jean Smith and play first show opening for D.O.A. at the Smilin’ Buddha in Vancouver.
1986: Mecca Normal self-release their first album, which includes the song “I Walk Alone.”
1986: Mecca Normal go on west coast Black Wedge Tour of mostly anarchist poets and musicians.
1987: Mecca Normal releases first 7″ ep on K Records (Olympia, WA), which includes “Strong White Male.” Part of the International Pop Underground series.
1987: Designs “Artists Against Apartheid” poster for Oxfam benefit concert.
1989: Designs literary newspaper BC BookWorld, which he has now been doing for over 25 years.
1991: Mecca Normal plays the International Pop Underground festival (Olympia, WA).
1991: Designs a series of theatre posters.
1992: Mecca Normal’s “Dovetail” (K) album features “Throw Silver”.
1992: Mecca Normal 7″ as part of the SupPop Singles Club, shared with 10-piece all-women band Kreviss, okay there was one guy in it.
1992: Mecca Normal’s first of five European tours.
1992: Mecca Normal cited as an influence to the founders of the social movement known as Riot Grrrl.
1993: Publishes Jean Smith’s first novel “I Can Hear Me Fine”.
1993: Rolling Stone features Mecca Normal, along with Liz Phair and Radiohead in New Faces: A guide to the coolest new music this summer.
1993: Mecca Normal opens for Fugazi in front of 4,000 people in Vancouver and again with Fugazi at Roseland Ballroom in New York.
1993: Book cover design of “Hard Core Logo” by Michael Turner. He will go on to design over 60 book covers and numerous interiors.
1993: Mecca Normal opens for Sonic Youth in Seattle.
1994: Mecca Normal signs to Matador Records (New York) and releases “Sitting On Snaps”.
1994: Four star review of “Sitting On Snaps” in Rolling Stone.
1997: Mecca Normal open for The Ex in New York at the Knitting Factory.
1998: Publishes a series of chapbooks, including “Keys To Kingdoms” by Bud Osborn which wins the City of Vancouver Book Award in 1999.
1999: Releases “Hundred Block Rock” album as guitarist in the Bud Osborn Band, featuring bassist Wendy Atkinson. The band tours Canada.
1999: Starts designing “Inspired Agitators” poster series.
2002: Begins ongoing lecture series with Jean Smith called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”
2003: Paints “The politics are not obvious” (12″x 12″ acrylic on canvas).
2003: Creates “Actually, I like crap” t-shirt, featured on national television (CBC).
2005: Writes the book, “The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism” (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Winnipeg, MB).
2006: Mecca Normal’s “The Observer” album released on Kill Rock Stars (Olympia, WA), featuring “Attraction is Ephemeral.”
2007: Releases “Guitar & Bass Actions” with his guitar/bass duo Horde of Two.
2011: Writes and illustrates the graphic novel, The Listener (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Winnipeg, MB).
2012: Awarded a BC Arts Council Grant to write his next graphic novel.
2012: The Listener is a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ Graphic Novel of The Year Award.
2012: Records Mecca Normal album in Miami with Kramer as producer.
2013: Begins graphic novel on the life of Emma Goldman.
Author biography in images:
Graphic design of posters, brochures, record / CD covers, logos, business cards and publications by David Lester. Some of these pieces are in the collections of Simon Fraser University and the Museum of Vancouver