‘Cindy Sherman said, I love these’: ex-Beta Band star John Maclean on his paintings
After late 90s indie success and a film collaboration with Michael Fassbender, Maclean embraced painting during the pandemic. His first show sold out – but don’t rule out a Beta Band reunion
It was a nail that started it all. “I wanted a painting to hang on it,” says John Maclean, former keyboard player with the Beta Band and award-winning film director. He nods towards a wall in his home studio in London where the lonely piece of metal still protrudes. Maclean has found it difficult to fulfil his mission: at first, because he wasn’t entirely happy with the paintings he was producing; more recently, because people keep buying them.
Becoming a professional artist at the age of 50 was not intentional. Like a lot of people, Maclean found himself painting during the pandemic just for something to do. At the time, he was casting for his second film – a follow-up to 2015’s Sundance-winning western Slow West – when everything ground to a halt. He sourced some old postcards on eBay, zoomed in on peripheral parts of the landscape that caught his eye (a tree, a waterfall) and tried to replicate them – applying the paint thickly (you wouldn’t guess they were watercolours) on to wooden panels using a psychedelic palette reminiscent of Hockney’s iPad spring paintings. Today, Maclean has arranged several on the floor in front of us, disconcertingly nudging them around with his feet as we talk. “Ah well,” he says, giving one a boot. “They’re made of wood.”
Maclean was hardly a stranger to painting: he studied at Edinburgh College of Art and was attending the Royal College of Art in London when he met his fellow Beta Band members in the mid-1990s. But he hadn’t picked up a paintbrush for more than two decades. Still, when he finally felt brave enough to post his work on Instagram, it instantly caught the attention of the artist and curator Matthew Higgs, who had lectured to Maclean at the RCA and been a keen Beta Band fan. Higgs offered him a show at White Columns gallery in New York, where he is director.
“I can’t remember such an overwhelmingly universal positive response to an artist’s work,” says Higgs from New York via Zoom. “There’s something very generous about John’s way of looking, John’s way of thinking. It’s quite disarming.”
Maclean was unsure about exhibiting his work so soon, and the experience of doing so was surreal. “Cindy Sherman was there,” he says, “basically going, ‘I love these.’ I was thinking, ‘This is crazy.’ And they sold out quite quickly. It went from zero to a lot very quickly.”
This seems to be how much of Maclean’s career has gone. He never saw himself as “a band kind of guy” when he first met the other Beta members. And perhaps this contributed to how the group – who mixed shuffling lo-fi indie with folk, hip-hop and house – always seemed like outsiders among their peers at the tail end of Britpop. “We went against all the cocaine ego-trumpeting,” he says.
Indeed, such was their anti-popstar approach, the band were often portrayed in the press as being difficult, depressive or wary of fame. “Which was ironic,” says Maclean, “because we weren’t depressed and we really wanted to be famous!” The band gained a cult following with 1998’s The Three EPs compilation, and their desire to cross-pollinate with other genres was ahead of its time.
Although the band split in 2004, Maclean has no regrets: “It wasn’t fun all the time. And it’s been documented that Steve [Mason, lead singer] went through ups and downs mentally. But in general, we got to do whatever we wanted in an era when money really wasn’t much of an issue. Even if we were playing a very small town in America, we’d have a full stage show, projections, film screens. The record company paid for everything.” He pauses and laughs. “Of course, I think it will take us 10,000 years before we ever make a quid from a record sale.”
Maclean was more than just the band’s keyboard player – he shot videos, created sleeve artwork and put together the Flower Press fanzine. After the band’s demise, and while Maclean was trying to break into the film industry, it was this body of work that caught the attention of Michael Fassbender. Somewhat improbably, the actor agreed to film a short with Maclean during his day off from shooting Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – despite the fact Maclean had never even worked with an actor before.
“I thought, ‘Right, I’m getting his day off. He probably spends a lot of his time bored, waiting around on set. So I’ll just jump on the back of his bike and we can film at different locations.’” Maclean filmed it all on the same old Nokia phone he’d used for shooting music videos. “People thought I was crazy. But Fassbender loved the guerrilla aspect of it.” So much so that, after Man on a Motorcycle, the pair reunited for another short, Pitch Black Heist, and then the full feature Slow West. “He was the first person to watch the music videos and not just think they were silly. I will be eternally grateful for that.”
Maclean’s journey through music and film has helped him work out what kind of painter he wants to be. As a young art student, he felt the pressure to be raw and cutting edge, to make art that had a strong message. “It took me 25 years to realise that it was better if I just forgot fashion and trends and made something that looked nice on somebody’s wall.”
His work is currently on show in London, but his priority is the film he was working on before the pandemic. He’s also writing a TV show for NBCUniversal, the idea for which came to him during a five-hour drive to collect a freezer from Hull (and no, I’ve never heard anyone say that before).
As for music, he still dabbles, and is keen on a Beta Band reunion. “That keeps sort of … not getting close, but definitely rearing its head. I’m up for it. But there’s always one member who’s either busy or going through a tricky time. It’s hard to get all four of us to agree it’s the right time.”
Who knows, if he finds any spare time among all of that, he might even get round to painting something to hang on that nail.
- John Maclean’s artwork is on show at the Approach, London, until 18 February.