The original YBA has done everything to the max – drinking, snorting and making millions with his art. Having gone sober, slimmed down his business operation and taken up flower painting, what does his world look like now, asks Tom Hodgkinson? Pictures by Chris Floyd
Damien’s studio is by the river in Hammersmith. It is a giant room. Damien is making massive blossom paintings. Enormous canvases lean against the wall, each at a different stage of creation. There is a balcony that looks over the river. He has one assistant who makes the tea. In the centre of the room are piled pots of paint and brushes. Visitors are given plastic overalls to put on, so their clothes do not get covered in paint. The photographer, Chris Floyd, arrives and Damien asks him what he wants him to do. “Just carry on doing what you’d be doing if I wasn’t here,” said Chris. So Damien paints. We all sit quietly as he walks up to a canvas, puts blobs on it here and there. I drift off into a meditative state. The old playground question, what would you do if you had a million pounds, occurs to me. And the answer, in Damien’s case, seems to be: I would paint all day in a studio by the river in Hammersmith.
We started by discussing Damien’s addictive personality.
TH There’s good things to drinking, like that feeling when you’ve had a drink and you feel confident and loose for a while. But it doesn’t last very long.
DH Yeah about eight minutes, or eight seconds maybe. I used to think I couldn’t give up drinking because I was going to lose that. Then I started to think that it wasn’t about losing something, it was gaining something. I gained being sober. If I drank now I’d feel totally uncomfortable. Before, I felt uncomfortable when I was sober. I didn’t want people to talk to me. Someone I’d met someone the night before I’d think I fucking loved them, ask them to get a minibus with me and go on holiday. Then the next day I wouldn’t know who they were. I know now that I’ve got an addictive personality, it’s in everything I do.
TH Do you feel your work has been better since?
DH A lot of the work from then wasn’t finished. I would have done much more if I hadn’t been drinking. I didn’t want a studio and so I didn’t have one. I remember thinking: I’ll just order everything and it’ll arrive at the exhibition and it’ll just work. Without a studio.
Anywhere there is money, there are cunts trying to take it off you
TH You were delegating right from the start.
DH If I couldn’t delegate I wouldn’t make any work. I like the action of nature, how it creates things. If you get other people it’s a good way to get things happening. So if I want to paint a spot painting but I don’t know how I want it to look I can go to an assistant and tell them to make a spot painting. When they ask how you want it to look you can say: I don’t know, just do it. It gives you something to kick against or work against.
TH Like being in a band.
DH Not really, because you’re employing them. I look at bands and think it’s a nightmare. I can’t make my own mind up – imagine being in a group.
TH The Beatles said they felt sorry for Elvis because he was on his own.
DH The Beatles were so busy with their internal turmoil. They had so much money but they were working class lads. They couldn’t keep their eye on it. Anywhere there is money, there are cunts trying to take it off you.
TH Has that been your experience?
DH In the last few years I’ve learnt so much more about it. I would have lost everything if I hadn’t been able to keep on making money.
I’d make like 30 or 40 million between Friday and Monday
TH And you’ve had to sack people?
DH I’d always made more money the next year than the year before. But it was unsustainable and it bites your arse. They all love you. The bank loves you, and the accountants love you, because they’re taking your money. Every year you get more and more people as well. One guy is taking 10 per cent and then it’s another guy taking 10 per cent and another guy taking 10 per cent and it’s all a big party. But before you know it, suddenly you’ve got an overdraft when before you had loads of cash. The people who give you the overdraft are your best mates as well, smiling at you and telling you that you’re amazing so you keep doing it. People say: it’s easy to make a fortune but it’s hard to hang on to one. They used to do that thing on TV where they’d go up to a rock star and ask him how much a pint of milk costs and embarrass him because he didn’t know, but I was that guy! I didn’t know how much a fucking frame was. I felt like the machines were just giving me cash for free. I’d have like five cards and I’d get as much as I could on each one and take £2,000 out on each and fill my pockets with cash and go out for three days. Then I’d go and get more. More drugs, more cash. Frank [Dunphy] , my manager would say to me: “You’ve had another double rollover lottery weekend.” I’d make like 30 or 40 million between Friday and Monday.
TH In 2008 you held a party in London on the day that the Lehman Brothers crashed [for his Sotheby’s “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” auction]. It was an amazing evening. I remember chatting to Lars from Metallica on a balcony in Claridges. I always think about where I was when the financial crash happened, on that balcony at that party.
DH I had just made $200 million in two days. It was all profit. I was just really fucking lucky that it wasn’t a disaster. A week later it could have been a different story.
I’m the creative guy, I’m an artist, I have no idea about money
TH When did you first realise that your cash flow had decelerated?
DH I just realised that things didn’t add up. I started to have to sell my art collection to pay the wages. I now know that both my previous business managers didn’t really know it was happening. There was never any proper adding up of accounts, profit and loss. It just grew too fast. It became a big fucking ugly monster but things are totally different now.
TH Do you find it stressful?
DH I was in a dark room. I couldn’t see out. No fucking clue, loads of employees and responsibility – but no tools to get out. I’d done years of tragic non-functioning business meetings. It took time to realise how little control I had over the whole thing. Every time I was discussing numbers it was different. I used to place adverts for an accountant saying: “A creative individual who wants to work in a creative environment.” Fuck off! I need a numbers person. I’m the creative guy, I’m an artist, I have no idea about money. You give them wages and job titles and they do it to the best of their ability, but they can’t do it well because they have no experience. I wanted to be an artist and make art. Suddenly I was spending so much time in corporate meetings.
Because it’s art, people believe it’s alchemy
TH You hear that a lot from pop stars too.
DH I had an office in London and a studio in the country, but it became the Head Office and I was drawn into it. The office people looked down on the people making the art as skivvies. The office workers were taking taxis and flying premium and club and the artists were flying economy and hiring coaches. It’s so wrong because you have to look after those people. They are not just workers, they are making the art. This is the engine and it’s not being looked after.
TH You’ve sometimes had phases where you have spent time in a small studio on your own. What do you prefer, being in a group or being on your own?
DH I just like making art. There are many ways to do it. But it was irresponsible, the way I was doing it. Someone told me that it was my responsibility if someone stole from me because I should be making it hard to steal. As an employer, you shouldn’t be encouraging the negative aspects of people’s behaviour.
TH But you don’t want to become one of the arsehole employers.
DH I don’t mind. I don’t think there’s fear of that. I’ve always had people who take the piss and people who get stuck in. But there was zero commercial thinking, that was the problem. If you’re not thinking commercially then your art is a hobby. You have to have cost control to have a successful business. That’s your profit. Because it’s art, people believe it’s alchemy. It might seem good because you can buy a canvas for 200 quid and sell it for a million. But then you have to have a press department and in-house accountants and massages for all of your workers and you can very quickly spend any amount of money. It’s one overhead on this, another overhead on that.
When you don’t have control, you can’t see the beast
TH So how do you relax?
DH I don’t know. I do yoga three times a week. For a long time I wasn’t in a good place with it. When you don’t have control, you can’t see the beast. You have a sense something’s wrong but you can’t see the mess. The more I saw the worse it got, but that’s part of repairing it all.
TH Are you happy on your own painting?
DH Yeah, absolutely, it’s so fucking cool. I love painting. You start by thinking you’ll get one assistant and before you know it you’ve got biographers, fire eaters, jugglers, fucking minstrels and lyre players all wandering around. They’re all saying they aren’t being paid enough and they all need assistants. Then one night you ask the lyre player to play for you and they say: “My lyre is all scratched up and I did ask for a lyre technician but you said not yet and if I had one I could come and play for you now.” So you’ve got to have a lyre technician and then you better get him an Uber account too.