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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, Kill Rock Stars and M’lady’s Records. Our 13th album, Empathy for the Evil was released in late 2014. 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.” My poster Malachi (18 x 28″) is included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial (New York City) along with a recording of a performance by Mecca Normal. 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 likable. 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 studied the silent-film era. 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 30-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. When we did a tour in Canada to support The Listener, 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. Also in 2012, Mecca Normal 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. In 2014, Mecca Normal released the album, Empathy for the Evil.
David Lester Selected Chronology:
1958: Born in Vancouver.
1969: Organizes a protest for student rights at his elementary school and writes about it in The Yellow Journal, a left-wing Vancouver newspaper.
1973-75: Illustrates/writes a monthly comic for FPS: A Youth Liberation Magazine (Ann Arbor, Michigan).
1977-79: Art Director of the Georgia Straight (a Vancouver weekly newspaper) where co-workers and writers included Sea Shepard founder Paul Watson, and cartoonists Rand Holmes and David Boswell.
1977: Member of the collective that produced Open Road, an international anarchist newspaper out of Vancouver, which featured his posters of Emma Goldman; Bakunin; and Sacco and Vanzetti
1978: Designs “Anarchy in Canada Day” punk poster.
1978: Plays guitar in rock band The Explosions (Bob Mercer, Alex Varty, Tom Harrison and Jamie Baugh) who release a 7″ featuring a prison protest song, which they play while opening for The Talking Heads in Vancouver. The band plays numerous protest events including anti-nuclear, and benefit shows, including one for a Chilean seeking political asylum in Canada (he’d been tortured after the 1973 coup).
1978-79: Art Director of Public Enemy, an alternative/punk newspaper in Vancouver.
1979-1980: Squats in Hackney, London, England for a year.
1979: Editorial design for Latin American Newsletters in London. For nearly 50 years the publication has been the foremost authority on the region.
1982: Writes the music for “Suicide” (lyrics by Marian Lydbrooke), recorded by all-women band The Moral Lepers.
1983: Designs the weekly left wing labour newspaper Solidarity Times during massive protests against the austerity measures of the provincial government (almost leading to a general strike). Edited by Stan Persky, the paper was financed by Operation Solidarity (a coalition of labour unions and the BC Federation of Labour).
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 they play their first show opening for D.O.A. at the Smilin’ Buddha in Vancouver.
1986: Mecca Normal self-release their first album, which includes the feminist anthem “I Walk Alone.”
1986: Mecca Normal west coast Black Wedge Tour of mostly anarchist poets and musicians.
1987: Mecca Normal releases 7″ ep “Oh Yes You Can” on K Records (Olympia, WA), which includes “Strong White Male” and “Man Thinks Woman”, the 4th release in K’s International Pop Underground series.
1987: Designs “Artists Against Apartheid” poster for Oxfam benefit concert that raises $12,000 to buy a mobile health unit to aid those injured in protests in South Africa.
1988: Mecca Normal’s “Oh Yes You Can” e.p. is single of the week at New Musical Express (UK).
1988: Mecca Normal’s “Calico Kills the Cat” (K Records) released. Recorded by Calvin Johnson and Patrick Maley. It would be K’s 4th album release.
1989: Designs literary newspaper BC BookWorld, which he has been doing for over 25 years with publisher Alan Twigg, who was awarded the Order of Canada in 2014.
1990: Mecca Normal’s “Water Cuts My Hands” (Matador/K) released. It would be Matador’s 11th release.
1991: Mecca Normal plays the International Pop Underground festival (Olympia, WA).
1991: Designs a series of theatre posters in Vancouver.
1991: Mecca Normal play Evergreen State College (Olympia) with Beat Happening and Bikini Kill.
1991: The Kill Rock Stars label created by Slim Moon releases its first album, a comp containing tracks by Mecca Normal, Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Melvins, Jad Fair and Nirvana among many others.
1992: Mecca Normal’s “Dovetail” (K) album features “Throw Silver”.
1992: Mecca Normal 7″ is released as part of the SupPop Singles Club, it is shared with 10-piece all-female band Kreviss.
1992: Mecca Normal’s first of five European tours.
1992: Mecca Normal cited as an influence by the founders of the social movement known as Riot Grrrl.
1993: Mecca Normal’s “Flood Plain” (K Records) released.
1993: His publishing imprint, Get To The Point, 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. David has designed over 70 book covers and numerous interiors for small press publishers.
1993: Mecca Normal opens for Sonic Youth in Seattle. Sonic Youth would later record a song in part about Mecca Normal called Skip Tracer, off the Washing Machine album (1995).
1993: Mecca Normal’s singles compilation “Jarred Up” (K Records) released.
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.
1995: Mecca Normal releases The Bird That Wouldn’t Fly 7″ single (Matador).
1996: Mecca Normal’s “The Eagle & The Poodle” (Matador Records) released, with drums by Peter Jefferies.
1997: Mecca Normal open for The Ex in New York at the Knitting Factory.
1997: Mecca Normal’s “Who Shot Elvis?” (Matador Records) released, with drums by Charlie Quintana, known for being the drummer in Social Distortion and Bob Dylan’s band.
1998: Publishes a series of chapbooks, including “Keys To Kingdoms” by poverty rights activist Bud Osborn which wins the City of Vancouver Book Award in 1999.
1999: “Hundred Block Rock” album released by the Bud Osborn Band, with David on guitar, and Wendy Atkinson on bass. All song’s co-written by Bud, Wendy and David. The band tours Canada playing shows promoting harm reduction. Bud’s efforts play a strong role in establishing the first safe injection site in North America.
1999: Starts designing and drawing “Inspired Agitators” poster series, which is archived at The Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles.
2000: Mecca Normal tour the west coast with godspeed you black emperor. The two bands perform Mecca Normal’s “Beaten Down” together at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
2002: Begins ongoing lecture series with Jean Smith called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”
2002: Mecca Normal’s “The Family Swan” (Kill Rock Stars, Olympia, WA) released, produced by Dave Doughman.
2002: Designs and draws the t-shirt “Actually, I like crap.” which is featured on national television (CBC).
2003: Paints “The politics are not obvious” (12″x 12″ acrylic on canvas).
2005: Writes the book, The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism (Arbeiter Ring Publishing). All author royalties (over $2,000) are donated to The Canadian Centre for the Victims of Torture.
2006: Mecca Normal’s “The Observer” album released (Kill Rock Stars), featuring “Attraction is Ephemeral.”
2007: Releases “Guitar & Bass Actions” (Smarten UP!) as Horde of Two, an experimental instrumental duo formed with bassist Wendy Atkinson.
2009: David starts drawing a weekly illustration for Magnet Magazine with text by Jean Smith. The collaboration has continued ever since, with over 300 pieces of art and text.
2011: Writes and illustrates the graphic novel, The Listener (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).
2012: Awarded a BC Arts Council Grant to write his next graphic novel.
2012: The Hidden Cameras cover “Throw Silver” for the album “Have Not Been the Same – Vol. 1: Too Cool to Live, Too Smart to Die”.
2012: The Listener is a finalist for Foreword Reviews‘ Graphic Novel of The Year Award.
2012: Records Mecca Normal album in Miami Beach, Florida with Kramer as producer.
2013: Begins graphic novel on the life of Emma Goldman.
2014: His poster of anti-war protester Malachi Ritscher, Malachi (18 x 28″) is included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial (New York City) along with a recording of a performance by Mecca Normal.
2014: Mecca Normal releases the album “Empathy for the Evil” on M’lady’s Records (Portland, OR). Kramer plays bass, vibraphone, mellotron and organ.
2014: Mecca Normal is interviewed on Democracy Now (New York) by Amy Goodman. The duo plays 3 songs, including “Anguish/Misogyny.”
2014: “Empathy for the Evil” is listed at #662 (out of 950) in Pitchfork’s critics ratings for the year.
2015: “Empathy for the Evil” is listed in the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Poll (annual critics list of best albums of the year) at #472 out of 1,529 albums.
2016: Cover illustration of the battle of Ballantyne Pier for British Columbia History, a magazine that has been publishing since 1923.
2016: Writes and draws a 12-page comic called “The Battle of Ballantyne Pier” which is published in an anthology of comics called Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle (Between The Lines). Noam Chomsky: “This evocative collection of the struggles and achievements of labour organizing should inspire us to ‘dream of what might be’ and to act to bring it about.”
2016: David is interviewed by Sheryl MacKay for NXNW (CBC radio) about Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle.
2016: At Emily Carr University of Art + Design, David introduces students to a time when design involved hot wax, knives, sizing wheels, rollers, Letraset, steel rulers, and lines were made with tape or drawn with a pen. The context was his experience in the collective that produced the international anti-authoritarian newspaper Open Road (1976-1990). His talk was part of a summer course called “Design Criticism, and Anarchy and Culture” taught by visiting Professor Jeffrey Swartz (University School of Design and Art of Barcelona).
2016: Mecca Normal‘s “Man Thinks Woman” (1987) makes the cut with an inspired write-up by Douglas Wolk for Pitchfork‘s “The Story of Feminist Punk in 33 Songs: From Patti Smith to Bikini Kill, the songs that have crushed stereotypes and steered progress”.
2016: Mecca Normal open for The Julie Ruin on their Pacific Northwest dates.
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