Photo: JD Photography
As bassist for Punchbowl alt-legends Hard-Ons, Ray Ahn forged a joint career as a member of the uncompromising punk band and the artist behind most of their album covers and gig posters.
Ahn juggles a record store day-job with his various creative pursuits. Starman Books, based right here in Perth, has just released a compendium of some 750 pieces of Ahn’s art in the suitably titled The Art Of Ray Ahn hardcover book.
Art and music are inextricably entwined with Ahn, and it’s inconceivable to have a conversation about one without the other featuring.
“We recently had been going through our storage space where the Hard-Ons practice,” he says, explaining how the book came together, “and we’ve been going through archival boxes of lots of stuff.”
Sifting through 30 years of drawings must have been confronting and, perhaps, even surprising for the artist.
“Yes and no,” he admits. “All the stuff there, I knew had existed and they did bring back, on the whole, good memories. But it made me realise I use a lot of popular culture imagery to say what I want to say and some of it’s real small, subtle subversions. You’d have Donald Duck swearing in Arabic: something really simple like that.
“I do love low-brow art, tremendously! I mean art is art, full stop,” he says, digressing passionately, “and I don’t tend to separate a piece of art like… a Coca Cola can, for example, to me, that’s as beautiful as the Mona Lisa. A lot of people wouldn’t agree with me but it’s just how I feel.
“But I just realised that I really deeply love low-brow preconceptions and ideas and images. I love hot rides. I love cars. I love guitars. I love zombie images from movies and Hollywood monsters like the Wolf Man and stuff like that. I love all that kind of stuff.”
Ahn says that it was his grandfather on his mother’s side who first taught him how to draw, but also credits him with imparting far more than that.
“He was a really, really great artist. He used to be able to sketch very realistically. He was somebody who could draw animals and scenery and stuff like that. Every time I’d go over there to my grandparent’s house and hang out for school holidays, whatever, he’d always encourage me to draw.
“So he passed on a lot of aesthetic and moral lessons to me. It wasn’t just art, but he also gave me a lot of life lessons when I was a kid: really, really simplistic things about the value of human life, the value of animal life, the value of every human being equal, the whole idea that materialism is just complete rubbish.
“He was… a little bit Buddhist, I suppose. My mum and dad were very similar, the whole idea that materialism is just deeply bad for the human heart, that kind of stuff. I mean, in terms of wealth, for example, my father would say to me, ‘no matter how hungry you are, how much could you eat?’ and the answer always was, ‘only one mouthful at a time’. So it’s a whole idea that you should have a measured sense of life. If you look at my family, for example, my parents just do not have anything like jewellery or anything that’s designer label.
“I’m not saying I’m Gandhi or anything or any of that shit, but I’m just saying they taught me to really value things that can happen inside the brain rather than on the outside. And that’s why I love playing in the band because it’s a great thing to do and in particular, with a band like the Hard-Ons. Even at our peak, we’d done a gig in front of 27 people right at the beginning of the ‘90s. And then the next thing, we’re on a plane to London and the first gig in London is a thousand people.
“You don’t want to measure success too much because success should be something that’s happening inside your head, not out there in how many people are there. So I always want to measure success by how happy I am inside my head and my heart rather than how nice my shoes are or things like that.”
It’s this purist attitude which fuel Ahn’s art, often to his commercial detriment.
“The art that I do, I wanted to make sure that I had to happy, and that’s why I just don’t draw for other bands anymore, because once I start accepting money to draw what people want me to draw, then my happiness gets compromised because my ideas get compromised. I get upset if my artwork gets upset, because I’m being asked to draw something to specifications and stuff like that.
“This is what it is and take it or leave it… I quite happily accept that there’s a lot of stuff in that book that I’d just look at and go, ‘I did that when I was 17 but maybe I wouldn’t do that now’. But at the time, my attitude was, ‘it is what it is’. It wasn’t, ‘yeah, this has got to be hung at an art gallery’, or anything like that. It doesn’t matter, as long as I was happy.”
Ahn’s art first came to prominence via Hard-Ons posters and record covers, and it’s fair to say that the music and art fed into each other perfectly.
“To me, the band was not three people who came together to play music – it was three friends,” he explains. “We’d been friends all that time through primary school. I was 10 when I met Blackie, he was 9. So because we knew each other so well, it didn’t feel like a band of musicians. It felt more like a brotherhood of friends getting up to lots of fun.”
Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Ahn’s completely individual style – all these amazing geometric shapes and pop culture references, and not being afraid of going low-brow where it suits – is masking a disturbed mind, but he dismisses any suggestion that it’s art as therapy.
“No, not at all. To me, it’s basically just aesthetics. It’s just an image, and I do put a lot of messages in there, and a lot of real in-jokes and stuff like that. There is a lot of that stuff. If you look at, for example, the inside sleeve for the Very Exciting! album. That album came out in 2003 and all the little images that are on there, only the three guys in the band know what they mean, so they’re in-jokes.”
This weekend’s Victims gigs aren’t the first time Ahn has performed with Dave Faulkner (aka Dave Flick) and James Baker, in this reincarnation of the ‘70s Perth punk icons, but previous gigs were billed as The Television Addicts, after their most famous track.
“It’s not called the Television Addicts anymore – it’s called The Victims,” Ahn points out. “James and Dave decided it’s silly to call it anything other than The Victims because that’s exactly what it is.”
That band – cult favourites themselves – were very influential to the Hard-Ons.
“They mean the world to me,” Ahn says with heartfelt passion, before digressing once again. “I mean those two Victims records mean the world to me. In fact, some of my all-time favourite records are all from Perth.
“The first few Scientists records – they’re amazing. I mean Perth has this amazing, vibrant history of amazing music. You can just think of The Victims, Scientists, Manikins, and you can put The Triffids in there as well. There’s a lot of stuff to come from Perth that’s just completely vital and says to not just to rest of Australia but to the rest of the world, ‘this is amazing, world class music from there’.”
The Art Of Ray Ahn is launched in Perth with a signing/Q&A session at Diabolik Books in Mount Hawthorn, on Thursday, August 10, from 6.30pm. The Victims perform this Friday, August 11, at the Rosemount Hotel and Saturday, August 12, at Mojos, with The Peep Temple and Peter Bibby’s Dog Act.