Exclusive interview: Gary Kemp

4 Mar|Tom Hodgkinson

Idler 65: Mar/Apr 2019. Out now on newsstands

Spandau Ballet spearheaded the 1980s revolt into style, so it is no surprise to find guitarist, songwriter and actor Gary Kemp has since created a bohemian kingdom in his splendid Arts and Crafts house. In a short extract from our full length interview in the new print edition of the Idler, Tom Hodgkinson meets Gary Kemp at home. Photos by Chris Floyd

Gary Kemp lives in a central London house built in 1820 by John Adam. It is full of the most beautiful art and furniture from what is often called the “aesthetic” period, the Medieval-inspired creative movement of the late 19th century which included people like Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Crane and all the rest. Ever since he first started making money with Spandau Ballet, Kemp has been collecting stuff from this period. He has a gorgeous library with meticulously arranged books – biographies here, history there, everything neatly ordered. He has a large shelf of vinyl. I spot The Beatles, Funkadelic and Spandau, of course. He has Ted Hughes first editions signed by Ted Hughes, an Antony Gormley sculpture, rows and rows of bound art magazines, a whole set of Aubrey Beardsley’s The Yellow Book and The Strand Mystery Magazine amid an infinite variety of visual delights. Gary offers me a turmeric tea and we sit and chat in the kitchen.

Tom Hodgkinson: So did you start collecting antiques when Spandau Ballet got signed?

Gary Kemp: To go back to the beginning, I grew up in a council house, my parents owned no furniture. The gag is that the only thing we owned in that house was the cat, and that is absolutely true. I went to a drama club across the road called Anna Scher. At that time, we were renting a floor of a house with two other families. None of us had a bathroom, we had to share one outside loo in the yard. Right across from there was a block of flats and in that block of flats was a community centre with a drama club for working class kids. This was before I went to grammar school, which also opened this door for me. In those days Islington was very divided. I worked in a greengrocer in the holidays and I’d sell spuds to one side and courgettes and avocados to the other side. And I remember bringing home a courgette and we put it on the kitchen table and my brother and I and my mum and dad just stood there looking at it. We had no idea what to do with it. Eventually we decided it was a miniature marrow and so the only thing to be done was to stuff it with mincemeat. And so we sliced it open, it was like micro-surgery. And then we tried an avocado and everyone thought it was disgusting. My mum put it in the fruit bowl because she didn’t know what it was, she thought it was a pear.

Gary Kemp photographed at home by Chris Floyd in the March/April 2019 issue of the Idler

TH: So in a way, this greengrocer was also giving you a glimpse into another, more exotic world.

GK: Yes. And the drama club. Miles Landesman [son of bohemian parents Fran and Jay Landesman] was there and also Phil Daniels, who was a mate of mine and a working class bloke, and a guy called Peter-Hugo Daly. We decided we would form a band and went to Miles’ house. I was horrified, because from the outside I thought: “This is going to be a palace!” – because these are rich people living in Islington. But inside, all the chairs were falling apart and didn’t match the sofa. What the fuck? I’d only grown up with three-piece-suites. There were posters of Mao on the wall and something strange that I’d never seen before, called a wok. Then there were old tennis racquets left on the stairs and half-opened bottles of wine and the smell of garlic which I’d never experienced before. And I thought: “Well they may be rich but they really don’t know how to smarten up, do they?” But of course it was all about the books and the talk. I was inspired by the books and the talk. And I suppose I became a snob. Not for fine things, but for cultural things. We didn’t own a book in our house. I remember on my first trip to the library the first book I took out was a Biggles, because my dad loved Biggles and sci-fi. I wouldn’t have thought of buying books – the library was the place to go.

What was odd, given what I do for a living now, was that this was the first time I’d ever played in a band with anybody. So it was in the basement and we had Peter-Hugo Daly on keyboard, his brother on another instrument, me on guitar, Phil on guitar, Miles on drums and we played all day long. ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ was what we were always jamming on, a track which I do now with Nick Mason [Pink Floyd drummer]. So that’s kind of extraordinary how that’s come full circle. I suppose I was very inquisitive culturally. I went to a grammar and that gave me the chance to mix with the sort of kids whose parents took them to the theatre.

TH: What it comes down to, then, the Blitz Club and the 1980s scene, was a way for working class people to live by middle class bohemian values?

GK: That’s exactly right. And I think we really felt like we needed it. If you don’t have that money, that house, those letters after your name, that family history, what do you have to represent you? You have your job and your outward appearance. Gangs are important for that reason.

This is a short extract from our full interview with Gary which appears Idler 65: Mar/Apr 2019, out now. The Idler is available to buy online and on the newsstand and in bookshops.