Interview: Artist David ‘LEBO’ Le Batard

In an era in which some combination of video screens, LED lights and lasers is standard fare at large concerts, there's still nothing quite as visually compelling as watching David ‘LEBO’ Le Batard paint at the side of the stage. Representing the self-proclaimed movement of “Postmodern Cartoon Expressionism,” an application of cartoon imagery combined with rich colors and unique linear composition, LEBO has been seen live painting with acts such as The Beastie Boys and Thievery Corporation, and has created official art work for the Langerado Festival and the Latin Grammy Awards.

Most recently, he took to the stage during the Disco Biscuits' performance at the Ultra Music Festival. His work that night is being auctioned to support The Philadelphia Young Playwrights, a charity founded by the late mother of the band's keyboard player, Aron Magner.

I caught up with LEBO to talk about everything from his creative process to the voting system in his home state of Florida. The conversation was as colorful as his distinctive work.

I recently saw you live paint for the Disco Biscuits at the Ultra Music Festival.  I was wondering how that collaboration came about.  I understand you have worked with them in the past on one of their album covers.

Yeah, yeah. I started out probably about 5 or 6 years ago through a mutual friend of ours for a benefit; I did a live piece for one of their shows in Fort Lauderdale. Then, shortly after that, I did a couple other things. I did something up at Camp Bisco with them, and the album cover for The Wind at Four to Fly. Over the years - basically, if they are in town or if I’m somewhere where they are performing, we usually just hook up and do something together.

How did you enjoy the Ultra performance? I was up front. It looked like you were having a lot of fun up on stage.

Yeah, for sure. At this point it's nice with the Disco Biscuits and with a couple other bands - Thievery Corporation and Spam Allstars and some other bands - I've done stuff with them for a while, and there’s a certain amount of looseness to it, and there’s just kind of a certain chemistry that’s just there inherently when you do something a few times with somebody creatively. So it kind of clears away any rough spots there might be otherwise, and it just allows for a real creative train of thought to be able to facilitate itself.

When you live paint, what’s your method? Do you have a plan before the performance, or do you just take the canvas and see what happens?

Over the years, I've tried to utilize a bunch of different approaches. The one thing I don’t try to do is to come with a really pre-set plan, because I've always felt that if you're going to do something live, it needs to really engage what’s going on live. It’s not about just showing up and doing what I would normally do in the studio, or something like that. So what’s seemed to work best over the last couple years is to have a rough blueprint of what it’s going to be, and to kind of have a general idea of it. But then also to let sort of the organic method take place and fuse that together. So then there’s a bit of structure and a bit of improvisation, and that tends to yield the best results. It's more fun doing it that way, and then the finished piece comes out more whole.

The live painting that you created on stage with the Disco Biscuits - I understand it is currently being auctioned to benefit the Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP). Can you tell me a bit about what this organization is and what it does, and how you got involved with it?

Yeah. That was actually founded by Aron’s mom, the keyboard player, and it's basically to encourage creativity in places up in Philly that normally wouldn’t get it. It brings in the schools, inner city schools and places that kids wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to exhibit that part of themselves, and it gives them a place to do that and gives them the means to do that, and to actually perform pieces and see them come to fruition. So this is basically what that project is, and it's something that I was glad to help out with, something that we've done together.

You can bid here in the auction online to benefit the Philadelphia Young Playwrights. The action ends on Tuesday May 17th.

As a working artist, how do you feel about the need to defend art education in America?

In my experience I've never really relied on the government for anything and I don't believe in the government for anything. I think that anything they usually have their hands in kind of turns to shit. So even though it's unfortunate, I don’t think (a) it's a surprise and (b) I don't think they were doing that good of a job to begin with. I've never relied on anything from the government in my art career, and I didn’t go to public school. And even the school that I did go to, they were more private schools for working-class people, so they didn’t have arts programs.

So ideally, I think it would be great if we valued art and the resounding effect it can have on our intellect outside of the art world. It’s like learning how to play chess: you know, you may know how to play chess really well, but the advantage comes in that it helps all of your other modes of thinking. And I think art does that too. But to me, this country and the government, they stopped caring about people a long time ago, and art is just one example. We can go down the list - whether it's medicine or even our road systems, they just don’t do a good job. So while it’s disappointing, it's not surprising at all.

In the lead-up to the 2012 election. what issues are important for you, and what issues do you think the pubic should be aware of?

Well, I think we should have a third and fourth party, to begin with. I think the fact that we live in a two-party system is a joke. Is there nothing else you can think of? In this world, that’s not diversified anymore. And you have systems in like Italy and in other places where there can be too many parties, but at the same time, those parties - the way they work is by voting! So if you have 15 parties running, they have an election, and then the people vote for the party that they want to vote for, and then they have another election. And then it’s really, it’s really a voting system. And it’s flawed in its own ways, but it’s not as limited. Whereas here, people want to put it in black-and-white terms, and it's either you're Democrat or you're Republican. Well, I’m not either of those things; I've voted independent for as far back as I can remember. Because I never feel like either party speaks for me, and I think a lot of people feel that way. On the front end of it, I would love to see more diversity and more-informed voting. Rather than this kind of drive-through voting that we have in this country. People kind of want to encapsulate these kind of broad issues into sound bites, and that’s where it starts.

After the whole Bush debacle that happened in Florida, it needs to be revamped in a way that makes a lot of sense, but how that gets done I'm not sure. Because if you go to a method that really uses technology, then you can always get hackers that can mess with that system too. If you have, like, a ballot system like it’s been, we've seen the flaws with that. So I'm not really sure. My emphasis and what I focus on is really looking outside of the two party system, because that’s something that I just don’t think works anymore.

What role do you think art plays in affecting this change that you are talking about?

The obvious example in terms of art is the recent example of Shepard Fairey stuff with the President. But I think the cool thing about art, especially if you do public art - and I've done a lot of murals growing up and stuff like that - is that it really is one of the most democratic ways to deliver a message. So whether it's with voting or it's whatever you happen to believe in. We still have the right in this country to go and put an image on the side of a street, where everybody can see it and everybody can have an opinion about it. Nobody needs to pay for it to get something from it, and it engages. And then it’s open to whatever it’s going to be open to, but you can still deliver your message. So I think the role of artist is, is to take whatever it is they believe in, and put it out there so the public can see it.

Some of it should be in the gallery system and the museums, but I definitely think some of it should be available to people that aren’t interested in any of that stuff. Because to me, being an artist you should -- for my method, I'm not saying all artists, but in the way that I try to produce art, and that’s part of the reason I do live stuff too -- you should try to be egalitarian about it, you should try and reach as many people as possible. Because I wouldn’t just want to reach people on a street level either. I like to have my work sometimes in an intellectual forum, where I am able to discuss it and I'm able to validate it and show the thought behind it. As well as put it on the street and have nobody even knows who did it or maybe its signed or whatever but they don’t really know who I am.

So I think that art really plays an important role in communicating a message, and if that message happens to be about voter empowerment or diversity of parties or whatever it happens to be, art can definitely qualify.

Going back to the live painting for a bit - how different is it, painting in front of audience, from the studio experience? Is your form any different? Do you find yourself painting in a different style because you find yourself consciously aware of an audience?

For sure, I think the solitary studio experience was one that I’m way more comfortable with, because I've been doing that since I was like ten years old I guess. When I was a kid, I had a drafting table in my room, and I worked at it all the time. So that was my studio then, and to me it’s kind of like a sanctuary in a way. And because of it, for me it tends to be a more analytical experience, and it has the gut sort of feeling to it as well. The predominant feeling is more cerebral, and I'm doing a lot of research, I'm developing a lot of sketches. It's really more about craft and really honing whatever physical skills I can, and then layering message and meaning into that.

Whereas to me, the live music part is taking all of that experience and just kind of putting it on the back end, where you are still able to rely on it but you are really reacting more from a gut level. And to me that just draws out something different; I tend to work a lot faster.

I really try, by and large, the pieces that I'm done with that I'm doing live, I generally bring 'em back into the studio and kinda tighten them up so they look more refined. Whereas it might take me a week to finish a painting in my studio, when I do a live piece I'll work on it for an hour - maybe two hours at most - and then I'll bring it into my studio for maybe two or three hours and its done. A lot of times, I think the live pieces end up being more successful then studio pieces and vice versa. It’s a real nice symbiosis. It’s a way to sort of, its like being in bamboo rather than oak. Rather than doing something the same way all the time, I constantly try and challenge myself to do things differently and by doing that my craft becomes much more fluid.

Can you elaborate bit more on the message that you're trying to convey through your studio work these days, the works that you're taking your time on in the studio, and putting a lot of thought into them?

I think there’s an underlying message in what I do: it's a message of hopefulness. I really try to explore that in as many ways as I can. One main way that I do and that I'm doing now as well is really studying natural principles. So that can be studying botany, or organic science, or astronomy and really trying to extract the things that make us who we are by studying those different things and magnifying those things. The things that make us the same, basically, verses the things that make us different. Which is what I think I spend a lot of time doing. When I in my teens, it was all about, you know, "Well how am I different?" My way of thinking is like this, and these people's way is like that and so forth. So over the years I've kind of had a real strong penchant for philosophy, for the past 15 years. And I think the more I have come closer to that the more I have become interested in the things that make us the same, and particularly the positive things that make us the same, and those are the things I tend to really explore over and over again.

So what other musicians have you performed live painting with?

I have been doing it now pretty actively for about ten years. I'd say some of the highlights on my personal list would definitely be the Disco Biscuits, Thievery Corporation, Beastie Boys would be up there, Burning Spear, Willie Nelson, The Dead, Femi Kuti would definitely be up there, Arturo Sandoval - a real famous trumpet player that’s still alive that goes back, I mean Dizzy Gillespie got him out of Cuba in the 50s. Les Claypool. I've done stuff probably three different times on Jam Cruise, which has been cool. I'd says the Jam Cruise experience in general, too. I'd almost put that as an entirely different entity from what I've done.

Is there anything else that you would like to say that you want the world to know?

I’m really grateful to be able to practice what I have been practicing since I was a kid. And to see it go through all of its different manifestations, and to be able to really have direct contact with people of like minds through my craft is a really humbling thing.  It's something that I'm only more grateful for the more that it moves forward. It’s nice because it never stagnates. It always is kind of changing and processing in different ways and it keeps me very vital and keeps me young in a way. But at the same time I feel like I get a little more enriched spiritually and mentally with each thing that I do.