It’s been a while since I interviewed a photographer for Mudkiss, they are handpicked with great care. Who could be better than the man we have for you today Cormac Figgis, he also goes under the name of The Master Switch, a freelance photographer and graphic designer from
Photo:Cormac by Declan English
He’s certainly making a name for himself on the circuit; his photos have their own unique Cormac Figgis style, vibrant colours, edgy & stunningly captured. He chooses many different scenes and settings for his work, from ballerinas, to punk bands, theatre to Fashion.
He has just won first prize in a photo exhibition called Shoot Out at
Mel - I’d first like to say congratulations for winning 1st prize at the Shoot Out exhibition with your Iggy Pop photo. Can you tell us a little about this exhibition and why you chose that photo to exhibit out of your vast collection?
Cormac - The competition was organised by a guy called Dermot Kelly, a photographer, who runs a production company called Fresh. Recently I’ve been looking for a venue to exhibit my work and I went to a new bar in town (No Name Bar) to ask about their space. The competition was already underway and I was pointed in his direction. He asked me to submit some shots for consideration and I was accepted. It ran over 12 weeks and included 50 photographers.
Photo: First prize - Iggy Pop & The Stooges
The Iggy shot was just one of 13 that I submitted overall. I included it because I knew people would respond well because of who it is. It’s very Iggy. To me, its tone and vibe are reminiscent of that iconic image from Cincinnati 1970 with him standing on the crowd’s hands as they hold him up over their heads.
Mel - Cormac Figgis, what an unusual & intriguing name, where does it derive from?
Cormac - Cormac mac Airt was, according to Irish legend, a warrior and the High King of
Mel - The Master Switch, whom you’re also known as, has slightly S & M overtones, is this a deliberate connotation?
Cormac - Not really, or intentionally anyway. I had a band in the mid 90s called !switches!. When I began djing I started using the pseudonym The Master Switch. It stuck.
Mel - Your childhood found you absorbed in the world of art, design and music, your great grandfather Art O'Murnaghan was Ireland's national scribe, your father was an architect, a photographer and music enthusiast. What was it like growing up such an inventive, creative world; did you have an unusual childhood?
Cormac - You only know what you know, your immediate environment, so it didn’t seem unusual to me. My fathers side of the family was quite academic, artistic (although my mother also went to art college and has a brother who trained as an opera singer). My great grand father, who you’ve mentioned, was part of the celtic revivalists, a teacher at the National College of Art & Design and the first stage manager at The Gate Theatre in Dublin. Darrell Figgis, who was a cousin or uncle of my grand father was a writer, politican and also a gun-runner for the Irish Volunteers in the run up to the 1916 rising.
Most kids, or at least the kids I knew when I was growing up, were into music of some kind. I guess the artistic side of things was a little different. Every inch of wall at home had some kind of artwork hanging in it, my great grandfathers pastels and celtic illuminations, paintings, drawings, prints, my dad’s photography. There were a lot of books on music and art. Bill Brant, Bert Stern, Henry Moore, biographies on Hendrix, Art Pepper, Roman Polanski, tons of stuff. I spent a lot of time looking through books.
I don’t have brothers or sisters so as a child I was mostly surrounded by an unusual and somewhat stimulating cross section of my parents friends, not that many kids. A mixture of musicians, artists, architects, photographers, stoners and lunatics, people like the writer Ulick O’Connor, musique-concrète composer Desmond Leslie, actress and singer Agnes Bernelle, graphic artist and drummer Dara O’Loughlin, jazz guitarist Louis Stewart, Catherine O’Shea the grand niece of the Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. Two of my parents closest friends had met each other in Morocco in the 60s when one of them was smugling a load of weed back to Ireland.
Photo: Brona Mac Nally School Of Dance
My mother was an art teacher and my dad had a freelance architectural practice at home so there were always design and building plans all over his studio. It was in the days before computers, so they were all done by hand. I would sit beside him for hours fascinated, watching him draw. He also really liked his music, particularly jazz. A big Coltrane and Davis fan, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Don Ellis. He was also really into Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, bands like Blue Cheer. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and Rainbow Bridge were two albums that got a lot of wear. He got me into a lot of different bands when I was very young. When I was in my early teens I returned the favour by introducing him to the Pistols and Ian Dury & the Blockheads, whom he loved. When I was 13 he gave me £2 to buy the New Boots And Panties LP from a kid in my class. His mother wouldn’t let him keep it because of the swearing at the start of Plaistow Patricia. In later years, I took him to see Johnny Thunders (what turned out to be his last London gig) in the Marquee and gave my parents tickets to see Ian Dury & The Blockheads in The Town & Country Club. They were blown away.
I have a cousin, Danny, who was in Virgin Prunes back in their early days. He had his own band then in the mid 80s, Princess Tinymeat. His records made a big impression on me and he was another really big musical influence, introducing me to bands like the Prunes, The Birthday Party, Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Pere Ubu, PIL, Eno and other bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Oh… and Gary Glitter. My first record was the single Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 1. My first gig was also Gary Glitter when I was about 7, a kind of family outing with my cousins and aunts, to the Carlton Cinema. I remember Danny coming to visit one weekend with his Kawai 100F. Danny, my father and myself spent an afternoon recording some sort of strange, avant garde-type noise with the synth, wine glasses filled with water and some other ridiculous household objects. I believe he still still has the casettes somewhere. That would be interesting listening. Maybe…
Mel - All very interesting stuff Cormac. Walter Figgis, your Father, introduced you to the John Peel Radio Show at the age of 11. What fond memories do you have of listening to John Peel?
Cormac - He was my savior and salvation during the 6 years of abject hell I went through in boarding school. I’d listen to his show on a radio stuffed under my pillow. The ‘authorities’ would let me out on Sundays for several hours to go home and I would edit down the tapes my dad had recorded for me during the week. On holidays we would sit by the radio, Monday to Thursday 10pm – 12pm and listen. Peel introduced me to a bunch of bands that my father wouldn’t have been familiar with. The Flying Lizards, The Fall, The Gym Slips, Gang Of Four. It’s when I started to really discover punk. I remember him broadcasting his ‘Super Summer Sounds Spectacular’ sometime in the early 80s. It was repeats of some of his punk sessions from the late 70s, bands like The Damned, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, The Adverts, Joy Division. I was completely hooked.
I stopped listening with the same dedication when he got into his African world music phase, which I really didn’t get at all, and by the time I finished college I’d lost track of what he was championing. All the same, his death really affected me. I’m normally puzzled and somewhat amused by peoples overzealous grief when a public figure dies, but an enormous part of my childhood was suddenly gone. I don’t mean in some shallow, sentimental way. When I was in school he’d kept me going. I always had something to look forward to.
A friend of mine gave me a CD of some early broadcasts, one with The Damned. It brought back floods of memories, that very unique sound a lot of bands that he played had. And that voice. It had been such a long time. I’d forgotten the intensity of the impression he’d made on me. As a supporter and an outlet for independent music, I don’t believe that there was (or will be) anyone more important than John Peel.
Mel - Your first photographic project was the study of the 1962 E type Jaguar with your father’s camera. That was in 1977. I read you were ten years old. What happened after this to spark further your creative eye?
Cormac - Nothing specific and everything really. The drive to pursue photography is a relatively recent thing, although I was always interested in it. It was an extension of everything else. Drawing was something I’d always done. We had a dog, so I drew her. Then when I got a camera I took lots of pictures of her. We had a jungle at the back of the house that was supposed to be a garden and I would sit in the middle of it and paint pictures of the trees. When John Lennon was shot I drew a picture of him to give to my aunt as a present (she was a huge Beatles fan and idolised him). Then I started drawing pictures of all the musicians and singers I listened to. Hendrix, Kate Bush, Mick Jagger, Ian Dury, Randy Crawford, Johnny Rotten, Paul Simonon, dozens of them. My father had designed the local cinema and was friends of the owner. I would go down on the weekends during my holidays and set up a stall in the lobby and sell them. Through that, I was commissoned to do a picture of Larry Mullen by some relative of his and a picture of Chris de Burgh (I’ll get my coat) for his mother. When Ronald Reagan came to visit Ireland I drew a picture of him. Even though we all knew he was a war hungry, doddering moron, my dad thought it would be funny to send the picture to the Whitehouse. We got it framed and packaged and sent it off. A few weeks later I got a personal thank you from Ronald and Nancy. Which was nice!
Art college was just a natural assumption. It never crossed anyone’s mind, especially mine, that I would do anything else. Which was just as well really as I was a total disaster in school. I didn’t even manage to scrape enough grades to fulfill the already low requirements for college. I got in on the strength of my portfolio.
Mel - Your journey into the artistic field, professionally speaking, started officially at
Cormac - I ended up in the animation industry for quite a few years. My parents had already emigrated to Toronto while I was half way through college. The building trade had completely collapsed and my dad couldn’t get any work. The summer before my final year I went over to spend the three months with them. The plan was that I would also move over when I was through, but I hated it so much I realised there wasn’t a chance in hell I could ever live there. Bryan Adams and Labatt’s beer pretty much said it all.
So when I graduated, Ireland was right in the middle of a major recession. People had been leaving the country in droves for England and the U.S for years. Almost everyone I knew was unemployed and college hadn’t given me anywhere near enough experience to get a graphic design job even if there had been one. I really didn’t want to sign on the dole and one of my friends from college had managed to get a job with the animation studio Murakami Wolfe who had set up in Dublin and were churning out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I applied for a job as cell painter and got it. I worked there for a year before moving to London to work for Universal Studios. I worked in several other studios over the subsequent years and didn’t get into design until I moved back to Dublin for the second time in 1995.
Photo: Cro Mags
Mel - You’re now quite well known to many, on the internet especially, but how would you describe yourself, and what you do?
Cormac - I try to capture the moments that make a live performance really exciting and hopefully end up with pictures that makes the viewer wish they’d been there. It’s not always easy, some bands are very dull on stage, in which case I just have to hope that the lighting creates something dramatic. The look that my shots have comes, I guess, from being a graphic designer. I generally treat them as processed designs of composition and colour, the same as any graphic design. I see everything as processed. That approach combined with some intense live action I hope results in something striking.
Mel - When did you know you wanted to be a photographer, and is it all you thought or hoped it would be?
Cormac - Photography has always been something I enjoy and have done in conjunction with graphic design, but I didn’t start doing it with real purpose until after I came back from
Mel - On your web site you use a fly as your kind of theme running through, what was the thought behind this concept?
Cormac - I hate flies. They make my skin crawl. I think most people find them pretty disgusting. I thought, therefore, that a fly would would be something that people would notice and remember. You don’t see them used as icons or logos very often.
Photo: TV Smith
Mel - I’ve recently converted to SLR Digital and bought a Nikon D60 with several lenses, it’s all very technical but making me more interested in photography, but it’s a minefield. What camera equipment do you use, are you a Nikon or Canon man, or neither?
Cormac - Definitely Nikon. The shutter makes a much nicer clicking sound than a canon!
I have a D70S, my first digital camera, and a D300. For non live, I sometimes use a Rolleiflex, but that doesn’t see much action these day. Some day…
Mel - A question really for me, but others might be keen to know, what lens do you use in the main for live shows, bearing in mind that many venues don’t allow flash photography?
Cormac - I use an 18-70mm/3.5 on the D300 and a 24-70mm/2.8 or 70-200mm/2.8 on the D70S depending on the size of or distance from the stage. That also depends on if I need to change back and forth quickly between cameras, which is usually the case for the big stages. Otherwise I just stick with one lens on the D300.
Mel - What is that “perfect moment” for you when capturing an image on camera?
Cormac - I like the “warts ‘n’ all” shots. Someone caught right in the middle of an abrupt or violent movement, face distorted, eyes rolling, hair swept mid air, sweat spray. That’s why I generally prefer shooting punk bands. They’re more animated. There are always exceptions though, I have a lot of photographs that I really like of acts far removed from punk.
Mel - Of course I have to ask this question, if you had to can you name three of your most treasured images?
Cormac - Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten and David Johansen. Iggy and Rotten in particular. I’ve been listening to The Stooges and The Pistols religiously since my early teens and if you’d told me then, that in 30 years or so I’d be in the pit shooting them live, I’d probably have just scratched my head and asked what we were having for tea.
Photo: John Lydon from The Sex Pistols
Photo: Iggy Pop & The Stooges
Mel - Who was the first band you photographed in a ‘live’ arena?
Cormac - The first band I specifically sought out to photograph was The Stranglers. That was a major coup. I’ve always been into Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bass. Great sound, great style.
Mel - Who is your favourite band or performer who you’ve already had the pleasure of taking shots?
Cormac - Different bands provide different experiences but it’s always a pleasure when I get to shoot someone I really like. Al Green and George Clinton, they were as much of a privilege to shoot as the Stooges or the New York Dolls. X-Ray Spex in the Roundhouse was great as well. Poly Sytrene liked my photography and we arranged that I come back over to London to take some pictures of her. I got to spend the afternoon with her. That was a big deal for me as X-Ray Spex always figured hugely in my teens and from listening to John Peel. I shot Killing Joke at the Rebellion Festival recently, that was very exciting. They’ve always struck me as a somewhat untouchable band. They were the only band over the whole weekend who had the entire backstage dressing room area closed off while they were there. Jaz didn’t even show for the sound check. They were also the only band to insist on a three song limit for the photographers, so that felt pretty special.
Photo: Poly Styrene from X Ray Spex
I’m house photographer for a couple of venues in Dublin and I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of great bands; Billy Childish, Nashville Pussy, Wire, Dirtbombs. I’ve also shot some incredible bands I’d otherwise never have heard of or bothered going to see. Health from L.A., Deerhoof from San Francisco, Ungdomskulen from Norway.Photo: Daniel Figgis
Mel - Who would you love to get in front of your lens, which you haven’t already already?
Cormac - David Bowie....Roxy Music… Kate Moss… Ian Dury!
Mel - Is there any particular subject (not necessarily a person) you would like to photograph that you haven’t already?
Cormac - I’d like to get into doing some fashion photography. I’ve done a few things that loosely fit into that area but it would be great to do some professionally styled shoots. There’s a designer clothes shop in town who have offered me the opportunity to do a shoot for them over the coming weeks. That will be a good way to cut my teeth properly.
Mel - Who would you rank amongst your favourite photographers in the world?
Mel - You’re a man of many talents, from playing bass in Dublin punk band ‘Paranoid Visions’, to photographer and creative artist, designing web sites and artwork. A bit of a hard question, which area gives you the most job satisfaction?
Cormac - I enjoy it all, When I’m on stage I can’t think of a better place to be. When I’m taking pictures, particularly at a gig, it’s just the same. Design is something I’ve been doing for years, so I enjoy it, but I guess I take it a little more for granted.
Photo: Paranoid Visions
Music & Paranoid Visions - (Edited from Cormac Figgis bio)
“Formed in 1981, Paranoid Visions quickly allied themselves to the Anarcho punk fraternity of the second wave of punk rock in the early 80's. During the 90's Paranoid Visions became the biggest punk band Ireland had ever produced, featuring on several TV shows, newspapers and being offered numerous record deals from major labels (all of which were ignored). In the early 90's the band played with bands like snuff, The Macc Ladds and
Check out the band here: MySpace: www.myspace.com/paranoidvisions
Mel - The band Paranoid Visions came to fruition in 1981, inspired by the likes of Crass, when was your initiation into being a member of the band? And how did you end up joining one of your favourite punk bands?
Cormac - I joined them two years ago. In 1988 I ended up hanging around the Dublin punk scene. I’d started in my cousin’s first band, Mutant Asylum, but I didn’t last long because I couldn’t play. We did our first gig with Paranoid Visions in UCD, I think it was a battle of the bands or something. I thought they were brilliant. We were so bad that at the end of the night we were asked back up to play again. MA ended up being a great band and supported Paranoid Visions quite a few times. That’s what initially got me going to the gigs. Most PV gigs were pretty intimidating affairs, Deko had (still has) a real air of threat about him which, for me, set them apart from the rest of the bands that were around. There was something very real about them. When they reformed I started going to the gigs again, sort of becoming their unofficial photographer. After their bassist left, P.A remembered that I played. He asked me to come in for some rehearsals and it just continued from there. It’s been a buzz. The first productive, organised and motivated band I’ve played with.
Mel - Do you write songs with the guys in the band?
Cormac - Most of the material on the last album was already planned or written when I joined. Several of the songs were ideas from the 80’s that had never been properly developed or recorded. There is one track, though, that the drummer Paul and myself wrote during a rehearsal. The next album, which we will probably start writing towards the end of the year, will be entirely from scratch. This particular lineup is the most settled the band has had since ’81. There have been nearly 30 members through its doors over the past 27 or so years. The last two years has only seen one member leave. I think it’s something we’re all looking forward to. There are now 8 of us in the band and we all come from a fairly diverse range of musical interests, although the common bond is punk.
Photo:The Adicts @ Rebellion
Mel - What is the most current update on the band, touring, recording etc?
Cormac - We’ve just played the Rebellion Festival in
Mel - You appear to have an insatiable interest in music, who are your favourite musicians?
Cormac - Too many to include all of them here. James Williamson, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Phil Lynott, N. A. Palmer, John Barry, Brian Eno, Ron Ashton, Chris Cunningham, Nicky Garrett, Robert Fripp, Steve Jones, John Cale, Keith Levine, David Gilmore, Jah Wobble, Youth, Jean-Jacques Burnel, I could go on.
Mel - Who would you say were the bands/musicians that have had a lasting influence on the way you work and live your life?
Cormac - Regarding the way I play, I’ve always gone for the minimal. That’s probably partly because I never learned to play bass properly, but even if I was some incredible virtuoso, it’s what has always interested me the most. I think the first bass player that I could say ‘influenced’ me, who really grabbed my attention, was Strongman from Virgin Prunes. He came up with some incredible bass lines with very little; When Twenty Tens was released I was only 13 and it definitely struck a chord (excuse the pun) even then. The bass is rudimentary, angular and just about the only thing approaching any kind of melody. Sleep Fantasy Dreams and Come To Daddy also made sense to me in that way. A lot of the punk / post punk bands had primarily bass driven melodies. PIL, Joy Division, Pop Group, Magazine. A simple bass line that drives everything else. Jah Wobble is particularly good at that, it’s all over Metal Box. The dub thing from the late 70’s ties into all that, Creation Rebel being the first band that springs to mind. The whole thing behind my band !switches! was to do with big, stupid, slabs of dubby bass with samples and guitars built around them. The one man I bow down to for the most inspiringly stupid bass lines is Steve Hanley from the Fall. Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain, and in particular New Big Prinz, have two of the cleverest bass lines I’ve heard. The man is a genius.Photo: Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh
As to the way I live my life, I’ve never really been influenced by anyone. I’ve been inspired, generally by people who work hard and stick to what they believe in no matter how difficult that might be. Iggy is a great example of that. It’s taken the best part of 40 years for him to be truly accepted on any kind of grand scale for his contribution to rock ‘n’ roll and, ironically, with the band everyone hated most of all. It’s also what inspires me about a lot of the older punk bands that are still playing and recording. They're working musicians doing what they believe in. Charlie Harper, Dick Lucas, I’ve got a lot of respect for people like them.
Mel - What’s your most Favourite album of all time, if you could just choose one?
Cormac - Impossible to say. I have a number of albums that take pride of place in my collection; Ian Dury - New Boots And Panties, Stooges - Raw Power, Rosemary’s Baby - Love Songs By Rosemary’s Baby, Crass – Stations Of The Crass, Thin Lizzy – Renegade, Brian Eno – Music For Films, Gary Glitter – Touch Me, Birthday Party – Prayers On Fire, PIL – Metal Box, Tubeway Army – Replicas, David Bowie – Low, The Ramones – It’s Alive, Virgin Prunes – Heresie, Roxy Music – Roxy Music, Lou Reed – Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Princess Tinymeat – Sloblands
Mel - If there was a documentary or movie made about your life what soundtrack might you chose to compliment this?
Cormac - Gary Glitter – Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2, Jimi Hendrix - Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), The Police – No Time This Time, Sex Pistols – Did You No Wrong, Virgin Prunes – …greylight, Devo – The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise, PIL – Theme, B52s – 53 Miles West Of Venus, Husker Du – Diane, Angry Samoans - Lights Out, Paranoid Visions – City Of Screams, The Fall – New Big Prinz, Killing Joke – Dregs, Joy Division – New Dawn Fades, The Stooges – Dirt, The Clash – Guns Of Brixton, Oasis – Live Forever, Young Gods – Longue Route, Revolting Cocks – Stainless Steel Providers, Foetus – Bedrock, JFA – The Day Walt Disney Died, Throbbing Gristle – Hamburger Lady, Minor Threat - Out of Step, Cocteau Twins – Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops, Crass - Nagasaki Nightmare, Rolling Stones – Sweet Virginia, John Barry – Midnight Cowboy, Brian Eno - M386, Princess Tinymeat – Wigs On The Green, Ultravox - New Europeans, Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood – Some Velvet Morning, D.O.A. – Slumlord, The Damned – Curtain Call, The Slowest Clock – Clarke & Jones, Magazine – Motorcade, The Golden Horde – 100 Boys, Henrietta Collins & The Wife-Beating Child-Haters – Ex-Lion Tamer, Rosemary’s Baby – See Woman See Human, The Trammps – Hold Back The Night, Odyssey – Native New Yorker, Isaac Hayes – Walk On By, Duran Duran - The Chauffeur, Roxy Music – Both Ends Burning. Editors – An End Has A Start, The Church – Unguarded Moment, Psychedelic Furs – Love My Way, X-Ray Spex – Germ Free Adolescents, Virgin Prunes – Twenty Tens, Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music, Part 1, The Ramones – Go Mental, Portishead - Glory Box, Massive Attack – Teardrop, The Sonics – Strychnine, The Cramps - You Got Good Taste, The Racketeers – Woke Up, Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Blackmail Man, This Heat - The Fall of Saigon, Thin Lizzy –lluther01 A Song For While I’m Away... that’s about a quarter of them!
Mel - To compliment the soundtrack of your life, what might the documentary or movie be titled?
Cormac - ‘From The Cradle To The Stage’
Cormac - Angelina Jolie, Kate Moss and if they’re not in, Liv Tyler.
Many thanks Cormac, you've got good taste, what a crackin interview !!
Photo: Texas Terri Bomb
Catch Cormac Figgis on any of the links below:
Website: Cormac – The Master Switch - www.cormacfiggis.com
Contact Cormac if you’re interested in a booking
Interview by Mel 08/08/09
All Photos by Cormac Figgis except Cormac by Declan English