Angus Finlayson meets Alex Solman, the man behind the distinctive drawings for the Golden Pudel and one of the best visual artists working in music today.
I start on my usual spiel designed to calm anxious interviewees, but it turns out that's not exactly what he means. "I'm nervous about the whole situation. After almost 14 years of doing all this stuff without any public record… it's just comfortable to sit at home, do the drawings, and some people at the Pudel say, 'Alex, this flyer looks fantastic.' I can handle this. Now I'm getting suspicious about whether the whole thing has been a good idea, because this is new and it's different. I'm not feeling that comfortable, to be honest."
You'd think that, on the contrary, Solman would be hungry for recognition. After all, he's been slogging away for years, illustrating flyers for a small club in Hamburg for limited fame and even less money. What's more, Solman is one of the best visual artists working in the music world today. His style is unique, balancing formal daring with puerile humour, and a gift for caricature with a sometimes unhinged minimalism. Die Welt Ist Eine Pudel is full of gushing testimonies from artists Solman has drawn: Blawan, Demdike Stare, Kassem Mosse, Call Super. Fans rip Solman's posters off club walls to add to their collections. But he seems ambivalent about turning this cult adoration into wider success.
This makes more sense when you know that the club in question is the Golden Pudel, a tumbledown shack with a reputation for doing things differently. Artists and clubgoers love the Pudel, partly because it doesn't care for the wider scene's hierarchies and metrics of success. Solman, with his warm laugh, greying moustache and abrupt exclamations ("Jesus Christ!" is a favourite) seems to share this attitude. Why else would he feel so conflicted about the release of his first book? "This is what makes me nervous right now: that it's going to get some attention. And on the other hand I would be totally offended if nothing happened!"
Solman's artistic life has long revolved around the club. He stumbled into the Pudel's orbit after moving to Hamburg in the early 2000s from his native Heidelberg, in southwest Germany ("a horribly nice city," he says).
Hamburg was a fresh start following several aimless years. After school, "I knew I was capable of doing drawing, but I didn't know what to do with this. I had absolutely no idea." Solman signed up to a state-run educational scheme—"interesting, but a big waste of time"—which got him into advertising. He ended up at an agency in nearby Frankfurt. He was made redundant when the dotcom bubble burst. His bosses said, "'Don't get us wrong, you are a nice person, but to be honest—advertising and you?' And we were both saying: 'No. No.' We were laughing, and I was really relieved when I was able to leave this place. I was like, 'Phew it's over. What now?'"
Newly arrived in Hamburg, Solman met the Pudel crew through T. Raumschmiere, a school friend who ran the Shitkatapult label, and for whom he had done his first design work (the sleeve for 2000's Stromschleifen). Raumschmiere performed multiple times at the Pudel's flagship Sunday night parties, MFOC, organised by Pudel lynchpins Ralf Köster and Tim Lorenz. Solman was a music obsessive but he wasn't a big drinker or a night owl. In other ways, though, he fit right in there.
"It's not always easy at the Pudel, and you have to get along with a lot of strange characters," he says. "A lot of people want to get involved with the Pudel, and stop a year later." By contrast, Solman recalls the club's Gerd "Schinkenburg" Ribbeck saying to him, "'We waited for you, where have you been?' I saw this with other people in the following years. You know, 'This is the one.' Most of the time these are really lost people. You see this in their face."
Solman arrived at a turbulent time: the death of the club's former owner, Norbert Kahl, cast doubt on its future, and money was tight. MFOC could no longer afford the full-colour, computer-aided images favoured by their previous designer. Solman was told, "I know you can draw because I know the record artwork, so you're going to do this now. There's the copy shop. Black and white please. On thin paper."
Solman drew his first MFOC flyer in January 2004. Back then, there was one flyer for the month, with an image on the front and the program for four Sundays on the back. "It didn't make sense to pick out one certain artist, so I was telling stories about these Sundays. All this drunk madness that was happening there—and beautiful music."
Solman's comic book-style scenes were fantastical, humorous and often grotesque, and centred on MFOC's distinctive-looking hosts, Köster and Lorenz. (In Will Lynch's feature on the Pudel, Köster is described as "Santa Claus on acid," and Lorenz as having "the look of a math teacher you might end up smoking a joint with.") In Solman's world, Köster might be a tubby toothfairy, or his head a balloon—complete with distinctive combover—making the "O" in MFOC. Or, to promote a party with Shackleton, he and Lorenz might be cows, with "Skull" and "Disco" branded onto their respective rumps. This freewheeling approach was inspired by something Ribbeck had said to Solman early on: at the Pudel, "You can't do anything wrong."
Solman's minimalistic style emerged years later. At the beginning of 2011, the skweee artist Limonious was performing at the club. He had "a really geometric face, totally angular. I started to make a drawing of his face like I always do, with some geometric forms." Before Solman filled in the usual detail, he stopped: "Oh my god, maybe this is enough."
"From this flyer on, something was changed. I was like, 'Can't wait for next week. Need a new face! I have to break it down!' I ended up with flyers with just one dot and stroke on them."
These elegant, clean-lined compositions echoed 20th century movements like futurism and Bauhaus. Solman has cited both as an influence; he has also called his style "sloppy constructivism." He insists that he doesn't research these styles deeply, so much as take a surface impression and improvise the rest. "I'm more interested in bicycles and records, to be honest. I will sit in front of my computer, watching bikes for hours. Or I spend a lot of time on Discogs. But I can't do art research."
Sometimes the abstraction is the main appeal. Die Welt Ist Eine Pudel is full of complex images that stretch figuration to breaking point, the night's lineup and date relegated to a smidgen of text in the margin. But Solman is not trying to frame what he does as "high art." There's always a visual pun around the corner to puncture the seriousness.
His knack for caricature also remains. Köster and Lorenz are still present, their forms distilled into a few penstrokes—Köster a gappy grin and a wisp of wild hair, Lorenz a frowning pair of square-rimmed glasses. The headlining artists, meanwhile, are often recognisable no matter how fractured their features. On the flyer for a night with F#X, for instance, Lee Gamble's face is just four strokes for eyes and mouth, plus a few extra for his hat. Pangaea, meanwhile, is somehow unmistakable on his flyer with Pariah, though only an eye and the set of a mouth can be made out in the geometric jumble. (You can also see some great examples of this in Solman's artwork for the FACT mix series.)
Solman says his main focus is on capturing facial expressions, in part influenced by the German comic artist Peter Puck. "I always catch myself when I'm drawing somebody—I'm doing the same face while I'm drawing it." But it goes deeper than that. He often draws artists he's never met, from images found online, yet still captures something of their personality. Like the Yorkshireman Blawan, who in the book admiringly mentions his "futurist style cup of tea," or Asmus Tietchens, whose beloved, 36-year-old Throbbing Gristle badge on his chest is emphasised in Solman’s drawing. "The [badge] stands for much of what was, is and will be important to me," Tietchens writes. "That Alex noticed that and included it in his brilliant drawing would alone be reason enough to kiss his feet."
This uncanny empathy for his subjects means Solman's drawings often become prized treasures. His depiction of Sleaford Mods as a pair of wizened tin cans has since been used on a 7-inch sleeve and on coffee cups; a fan of the duo even got it tattooed. The band say the drawing is "as much Sleaford Mods as the music itself."
Arranged in chronological order, and featuring a selection of his MFOC work alongside other commissions, Die Welt Ist Eine Pudel is a celebration of Solman's inimitable style. But it's not just about him: as per the title, the book also celebrates the community around the Golden Pudel. (For the book’s launch in Berlin on April 13th, Solman will DJ alongside his old friends Köster and Lorenz.) Solman was just starting to go through old flyers when the club was partly destroyed in a fire last February. The Pudel has been Solman's main source of income for 14 years—he also works the door—and he was left scrambling for other work. "Since that day everything has just been a blur," he says.
The Pudel's owners have since bought out an antagonistic partner and avoided a forced auction. Following a call for donations and a grant from the German government, they'll soon reopen the club in renovated form. When they do, Solman might happily retreat back into the club's collective identity. In a classic bit of Solman literalism, the book's cover depicts earth as a gormless poodle floating in space, ringed by the twin moons of Köster and Lorenz. It's easy to imagine the illustrator as another of those moons, happily trapped in the club's orbit.
As Solman orders his second mint tea, I mention the MFOC website, on which he's cheekily described as a "failed artist."
"I never felt like an artist," he says. "I probably wouldn't do anything if there wasn't a deadline, because the weather's fine, I'm going biking. I try to do the flyers as free and as arty as I can, but at the end of the day, it's a flyer to promote an evening in a club that should tell you, 'This DJ is playing there on this date.' Simple as that."