ALIX AND DAVE BEESTON | LECTURER AND MUSICIAN | CARDIFF

ALIX AND DAVE BEESTON | LECTURER AND MUSICIAN | CARDIFF

Alix & Dave Beeston are an Australian couple living and working in Cardiff. Alix is a Senior Lecturer in English at Cardiff University and the author of the thought-provoking book In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen. Dave is a professional musician and member of the band All Mankind, currently working on his solo project, 27TEN. Unconventional and multilayered, their relationship seems to be hinged by creativity, intuition and experimentation. Two years into their new life in the Welsh capital, we caught up with the Aussie couple to find out more about their existential journey, Alix’s academic career and research interests, and Dave’s musical projects and inspirations.

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For people who don’t know you, who are Alix and Dave. What are your stories?

Alix: We’re accidental Cardiffians! We both grew up in Sydney, though we didn’t meet until our late twenties. Before moving to Wales a couple of years ago, we’d each spent quite a bit of time living outside of Australia. Dave is a professional musician, and he travelled all over with his band, recording and touring in the U.S., the U.K., and especially in Germany. I’m an academic and a writer, and my PhD and postdoctoral research took me to a bunch of different archives and universities in North America. We came to Cardiff almost two years ago, when I was offered a lecturing position at Cardiff University. Permanent academic jobs are very difficult to get, so I was thrilled to land this job. But it was a big move, and a tough one. We weren’t prepared for the extent of culture shock that we’ve experienced, and we feel pretty different a lot of the time. I’ve had to procure pretty much an entire new winter wardrobe because I had basically no clothes that were warm enough for winters here. I love clothes, so that wasn’t the worst thing! But we still really miss Sydney’s warmth and beaches, as well as the casualness of Australian culture, the cheeky irreverence and boldness of Australian humour.

Dave: In terms of our work, being in Cardiff has been great for both of us. Alix spends her time researching and writing about how women are represented in literature, photography, and film. Her work is super creative, bringing together critical argument and beautiful poetic writing. She also gets to teach whatever she wants, pretty much: this year her courses included Beyoncé’s Lemonade and films like Get Out and Mad Max: Fury Road. As someone whose worst subject at school was English, even I’d love to take her course. As far as my own work is concerned, I’m a trained-up drummer, and that’s been my main work for the last ten or more years. Since being in Cardiff, my music has taken a different turn. Once we arrived here, I didn’t have much to do at all, apart from doing boring things like connecting the gas and electricity. I didn’t have a community, musical or otherwise, and we didn’t even have a TV to watch whatever boring crap was on during the day. So I picked up an iPad and found my way to GarageBand, where I suddenly found I could have access to music in a completely new way. GarageBand is such a simple app that it’s easy to put chord progressions together, play little riffs on the keyboard, create melodies and bass lines, and make fairly gnarly synth sounds ‒ gnarly enough for an iPad at least. As I ventured deeper, I found myself writing whole instrumental songs, sort of by accident. In hindsight that makes sense, because when it comes to music, I’m mostly interested in songs. Anyway, months down the line I’d written myself a little EP of six songs – which has just been released.

How did you two meet?

Alix: We were brought together by music, actually. We’re both musicians, and we were roped in to play at an event one very hot January in Sydney. We’d be hanging out with the rest of the band, just eating and joking around, and within a couple of days of meeting it was clear that we thought about music in a really similar way ‒ it’s a tangible fixture in our lives, a kind of scaffold for living out our days and coming to terms with our hopes, fears, desires. That summer, I was in the habit of hosting listening parties with my housemates. A bunch of people would come around and share a song they loved ‒ any kind, any genre ‒ and we’d all sit around in the living room and listen to them in turn. No judgement allowed. It sounds totally pretentious, but actually it was a lovely way to just be with others and to share art that made sense to us, or maybe made sense of us.

Dave: So Alix invited me to one of these parties.

Alix: I was just being friendly!

Dave: Right, but you seemed so unlike anyone I’d ever met before. So I was definitely interested. Within a week we’d gone on our first date ‒ we got cheap Chinese (my favourite Chinese place in Sydney… and that night it was terrible. Luckily it didn’t matter!) and we talked until about 4.30am where we reluctantly called an end to the night (morning). A year to the day after we first met, we got married.

Tell us a bit about your existential camaraderie. How do you influence each other and how would you define the threads that connect your personalities?

Alix: We’re one of those gross, impossible couples who have almost everything in common and haven’t ever had a fight. In the day to day, we have remarkably similar tastes ‒ in what we like to eat, how much time we want to spend watching Netflix (a lot), the level of messiness we’re comfortable living in, that kind of thing. But more than that, we have similar temperaments, as well as a shared sense of what matters in life. We’re very chill about the little things ‒ we don’t sweat minor details ‒ but we’re highly ambitious, too, in our different ways. Dave is more calm and self-assured than me ‒ he’s the most self-assured person I’ve ever met, in that healthy sense of knowing who he is and not being invested in proving himself to others. He’s just himself. I can be a bit more anxious, playing back conversations or encounters over and over in my mind, or imagining I can control the future by sheer force of will. So Dave often helps me to get out of my own head. But I think my different level of intensity helps Dave, too.

Dave: I second that, we’re like so similar in the ways that make living together the easiest thing, but different in all the ways that allows each of us to push each other in ways of being better in areas of weakness. I mean, I’m naturally a lazy person, I’d love to just sit around, make music, drink coffee, and muck around with my friends. Seeing Alix’s drive, ambition, work ethic, taste, insight, her love of others, the way all her work is uncompromisingly word class ‒ it’s infectious. You can’t help but be inspired to be a better person when you’re around someone like that constantly. I’ve also never met anyone with such a high emotional intelligence. I’d love to be half as thoughtful and perceptive to those around me.

Alix: Part of what works for us is that we have our own independent pursuits, which are hinged by creativity and experimentation. There’s lots of overlap in how we work ‒ when I write articles and Dave writes songs, we have similar experiences of solving problems, following our intuition, finding the best form for our ideas. So we understand something of each other’s process. But we also give lots of space to one another to work on our individual projects, in our separate fields.

What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?

Dave: Honestly, food. We love all food, basically, and if we’re not cooking or eating we’re probably watching YouTube clips about, you know, how to make Dan Dan noodles from scratch, or lining up recipes to try for the week. In fact as I speak we have a pizza dough fermenting away in the kitchen and it will sit there for 72 hours before we make it into dinner. Yum!

Almost two years ago, you moved from Sydney to Cardiff and started a new chapter in your life. What was your first impression of the city? What did you learn or observe that surprised you the most?

Alix: To be honest, Cardiff felt quite small in comparison to Sydney, which is a huge, cosmopolitan, and sort of aggressively modern city in many ways. We’re definitely big city people, but small isn’t bad, of course. It’s virtually impossible to get around Sydney without a car, but here we don’t even have to own one. We can walk everywhere, which is such a nice way to move through and get to know a new space. 

Dave: Agreed. I think the most surprising thing in Cardiff, for us, is probably the pace of life here. In Sydney you have that big city, big ambition, big pressure kind of vibe where it’s all about moving forward and getting ahead (and saving a million dollars for a simple apartment!). Cardiff is a much more relaxed place in that sense. Although things are improving all the time, no one is in a huge rush here, the pressure to succeed is not so intense. That also means it feels like the stakes aren’t as high, which means there’s room to experiment and try things out.

Having lived in Cardiff for almost two years now, what do you think is the most striking characteristic of the Welsh capital, and how do you connect with its inhabitants?

Dave: I think the striking thing about Cardiff is the potential it has. There’s obviously a lot going on in TV production here, there’s tech companies here doing great things, and there’s a lot of people who are pushing Cardiff to be world-class in their fields. Even in areas like food, we can see a lot people opening independent stores in Cardiff Market (like Ffwrnes pizza and Hard Lines) and all sorts of food trucks, pop-up restaurants and the like. It feels like an exciting time to be in Cardiff as it figures out what kind of modern city it wants to be.

Dave, how did you get into music? What was your journey like?

Dave: It started fairly simply. Early in High School, I asked my parents to send me to a drum teacher, ‘cause I thought the drums was not just the coolest looking instrument, but the coolest looking thing on the planet. For some reason they obliged and almost immediately, I realised that the drums were the thing for me. Learning them was one of the easiest things I ever attempted and within a couple of weeks I had decided, yep, I’ll just do this forever. Done. So from that time I threw myself into learning the drums and constantly listening to music. After high school I spent a few years at a music school but then my real education started with my band All Mankind. With my brother and two of my closest friends, we wrote music, recorded it, and then played that music all over the world. It’s a long story, but basically we pushed really hard and in the end we were able to do so many cool things and meet thousands of amazing people on the way.

Alix, what motivated you to become an educator and what do you aim to equip your students with?

Alix: You know, when I was doing my PhD, I was unsure whether I wanted to be an academic ‒ until I got into the classroom and found myself in the midst of these incredible conversations about art and politics with my whip-smart students. I love how teaching in a university context isn’t so much teaching as co-learning alongside your students. The students have chosen to be there, they’re adults, and it’s very much up to them to bring their own insights and questions to the table. This makes the learning environment quite intense, exciting, even risky ‒ it’s a community in which everyone participates, and in which together we seek to push past our limits, to know new things, or to know things in a new way, with a new clarity or force. Really all learning is about broaching your limits, and in this sense there’s always some degree of risk: of failure, embarrassment, awkwardness, whatever. One of the things that has struck me the most about my students is how little confidence they can have in tackling difficult things, whether it’s literary or theoretical texts they don’t understand on first reading or films that subvert or confront their expectations and desires. I say to my students that even if they learn nothing else from my classes, nothing about the history of literature or film or feminism, what I want them to learn is that the difficult stuff is for them, that they have the capacity to figure it out. Difficulty shouldn’t be a barrier but an invitation. If my students get this, I’ll count my classes as a success.

I love my job because my students and I are grappling with some of the most important questions of our time. How do we or should we approach the experiences of other people, including those from whom we’re (apparently) separated by differences of gender, race, class, ability? How can we understand sexism and racism as structural issues, baked into the very fabric of our society? And how can we live in a way that encourages a more equitable and just world, a less violent one? 

Novels and films aren’t meant to be parables for political action, and analysing them won’t solve the world’s problems directly. But I think creative texts like these are sites in which some of the contradictions and tensions and norms that define our society are made manifest, and so digging into them can help us to understand what kind of society we are ‒ and prompt us to consider what kind of society we want to be.

Back to you Dave. Can you tell us about your new musical project, 27TEN? What inspired you to move in this direction and what are you hoping to achieve with this project?

Dave: 27TEN is the name I go under for the music I’ve written since arriving in Cardiff. Around the time we arrived, both Stranger Things and Blade Runner 2049 had been released and I was inspired by those classic 80s soundtracks that were in both shows. There is something about 80s music that can touch an emotional nerve for me that other music just doesn’t. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but the synthesiser allows people to create sounds that feel like brightly coloured explosions in space. This idea of being in space, with no one around, just floating ‒ this is also kind of what it felt like to be in Cardiff. I’m also interested in the way 80s music can feel like both the past and the future all in one, and as someone who thinks about time constantly, I was just reconnecting with these sounds and feelings on so many levels, it just felt natural to pursue that vibe.

I’m not particularly interested in creating a facsimile of the past, though. It has to sound modern, it has to bridge then and now, past and future, so that’s the direction I went with. My short-term aims for this project at this stage have been realised already. I’ve learnt so much about song writing, so much about my relationship to music and my capabilities, and I’ve been able to push myself creatively forward in a way I never thought possible. In the medium to long term, I want to create a world-class body of work. It may sound arrogant to say, but I only want to make music that’s as good as the artists that I love and admire. I’m not saying I’ll get there, but that’s what I’m shooting for – I mean, what's the point of making something that’s a bit “meh”? I’m trying to write the very best songs I can and we’ll see where we go from there. 

You mentioned earlier that you’re also the drummer in the Australian band All Mankind. How was the band born and how does it work for you now that you have moved to Cardiff?

Dave: The band came together in 2008. We were four friends and brothers who were keen to not just make music but to make music work for a job. None of us were interested in anything less. So, my brother would write the basic outline of the songs, then the rest of us would come in and shape them, add our own parts and make them ours. Now that I’m on the other side of the world, that process remains the same to some extent. My brother will write a song, he’ll take it to Dorny, who is our guitarist and also a sound engineer, and they’ll build it up a bit. Gav will then put down his own (brilliant) bass parts, and finally they’ll send it to me. I’ll craft some backing vocals and drum/percussion parts. I now also will add synth or lead lines, a skill that has come out of my 27TEN work. All of us will be involved in structuring the song, trying to find the best arrangement possible. If it wasn’t for computers and the internet, there’s no way that this would be possible and the band would have had to split. Thankfully we live in the future where that’s not necessary.

Alix, in your book, In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen, you explore the relationship between photography and modernist fiction, while focusing on the ethical and political possibilities of representations of women in those mediums. Can you tell us a little more about this research and what interested you about it?

Alix: Sure. I think I’m basically obsessed with thinking about how women might be able to exceed or escape the boxes they’ve been put into by our society. This is a real issue for me, a live one, because I experienced my gender as restrictive and constraining in different ways. When I was a kid – and I’ve spoken to lots of other women who had similar experiences – I was constantly being told that I was too much: too chatty, too intense, too excessive, too smart, and so on. I was told this with and without words; there’s a whole infrastructure in place to make sure that little girls know what is and isn’t appropriate for them, in terms of their behaviour and the futures they’re allowed to imagine for themselves. I’ve spent my whole life trying not to buy the lie that I should be smaller, in many senses of the world – that I should take up less room and make less noise, so I can squeeze into the norms of femininity more easily.

So, the book accounts for how new visual technologies such as photography shifted the way writers imagined and rendered the world in the first half of the twentieth century. But behind that scholarly argument is a very personal desire, and a political one, to show how even in photographs or novels in which female characters or bodies are subordinated to a racist and patriarchal order, there’s still the possibility that they might resist those forces – even if it’s only a very limited possibility. I think through how things like silence or disappearance, which are normally understood as negative phenomena, might be understood as signs of resistance. For example, maybe the woman who doesn’t speak isn’t being silenced, or isn’t only being silenced, but is in fact refusing to speak – and therefore performing a kind of protest against her mistreatment in a world that doesn’t value her or treat her equitably. That’s the kind of hypothesis I was testing in the book.

You’ve expanded on this work through an innovative digital project called Object Women: A History of Women in Photography, which is the first attempt to use Instagram for dedicated art historical enquiry. What was the aim of the project and how did it respond to contemporary feminist thinking and activism?

I had two aims with the project. The first was to experiment with a creative non-fictional form of writing, which was geared toward people inside and outside of academia. I love writing, and I wanted to push myself to develop a style of writing that balanced the analytical edge of scholarly writing with the lyricism and reflexivity associated with memoir. The second aim was to see how the history of women in photography might challenge conventional understandings of the male gaze. For a long time, art historians and critics have focused their attention on how the camera has been turned on women in hostile ways, transforming them into objects of male fantasy and desire. The concept of the male gaze has new resonance these days, as women are saying #metoo and #timesup in every language, protesting the full spectrum of gendered aggression and violence. That violence is underwritten, I’d argue, by the idea that women are valuable above all for what they look like – their surfaces, their skins.

Object Women intervened in the vital conversations happening around women’s experiences in culture and politics today, by suggesting that the way we look at women in photography – and the way photographers, of any gender, look at female subjects – isn’t straightforward. The photograph can be objectifying, definitely. It can reduce women to objects. But the photograph can also trouble our ideas about what femininity is or isn’t; it can be a space where women radically rework ideas about gender. The photograph can also, sometimes, reveal the conditions of its capture, reminding us of the constructedness of all portraiture, or making us reflect on our own spectatorship as an ethical and political act. In this sense, Object Women provides a visual backstory to the spirit of defiant protest and witness that defines contemporary feminism.

Dave, what are your thoughts on Alix’s book and research interests?

Dave: Let’s get this straight, I’m not the smartest cookie in the tool shed (see what I did there?). Alix’s work is incredible and a lot of it is on a level I can’t quite access. Alix’s book is so next level it hurts my brain, but I find it absolutely amazing that she’s able to do it. It’s incredible. Some of her more recent work like Object Women and other things she’s published, like an article on the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), are much more accessible for someone like me. They’re interesting, poetic, funny, moving, and so insightful. I often tell Alix she’s like Batman – well, the part of Batman that is a detective – because she’s able to look past the surface of a text or a photo and see what’s really going on. She’s able to pick up the clues and expand on them and explain what’s going on behind the scenes. Again, it’s amazing the work she does and it just keeps getting better and better. It’s really cool to watch.

How about you, Alix, what comes to your mind when listening to Dave’s music?

Alix: I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to find out how a magician does her tricks or how the internet works or whatever – I like the mystery, I like being awed by other people and their specific gifts, I like being an admirer. That’s the kind of experience I have when I listen to Dave’s stuff. What he does with a few hours and an iPad is crazy – he has this incredible ear for sounds and melodies, which means that the songs just lock in and make sense. He’s also got great taste; he knows intuitively how to make things sound cool. There’s also a darker element to his music, beneath the fun, energising pop structure. For me this reflects Dave’s deep awareness of how mortality shapes human experience, as well as his sense that the world isn’t how it’s meant to be.

What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?

Alix: I mostly don’t have trouble getting inspired to write – if anything, I have a tendency to work a bit too much. So over the summer I’m making sure to take the weekends easy, to read a new novel at our local coffee shop, to go for a walk around Roath Lake, to paint my nails. Simple things like that.

What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?

Dave: First, when am I getting my hover board as promised by Back to the Future? I’m tired of waiting. Second, where will we be in 10 years? And third, why does Chinese food taste so good?

What is inspiring you right now, and how do you emulate it through your current work?

Alix: I’m inspired by writers who do surprising, moving, and challenging things with creative non-fiction – people like Janet Malcolm, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and many others – and scholars whose writing is as beautiful as it is erudite and insightful – such as Anne Anlin Cheng, Patricia Yaeger, and Saidiya Hartman. I don’t exactly want to emulate these authors so much as work in their lineage.

Dave: I’ll never cease to be inspired by Pearl Jam. I don’t know what it is about that band, but even after listening to them for twenty years, they still give me goosebumps. Also: PNAU, Sia, Prince, The Cure, Tame Impala, Stranger Things Season 3, YouTube, homemade pizza, MSG, and the sun. I like to internalise this stuff, absorb it, and then just see what comes out: no pressure, just let it flow.

What about the future? What dreams and ambitions would you like to pursue?

Alix: I want to keep doing what I’m doing – researching and writing in innovative and thoughtful ways, being kind and generous in my teaching, using my job to bring people together so we can learn from one another. I’ve got a couple of new books at the planning stage, including an expanded version of my Instagram project, which I can’t wait to get into writing. Apart from that, there’s the long project of embedding ourselves in Cardiff – and getting used to the constant haze of rain.

Dave: I want to write just the best song everyone has heard. Impossible, yes, but again, why not aim for that and maybe you’ll end up writing something that lots of people like. I’m also keen to figure out how to live better in this world, how can I love people more, and figuring out how that love changes the way I live – with those next door and with people I’ll never meet in countries I’ll never go to. The world is so connected, there’s no escaping that, and life is so short. So let’s make it the best we can.

What do you want to be remembered for?

Alix: Like most people, I guess, there’s part of me that longs to be remembered. But honestly, I don’t really want to entertain that part of me very much. The desire for posterity seems to me to often be the desire for power, and it’s a desire that turns you inward rather than outward, even if ostensibly you’re working for the good of others. If I’m seeking the good of others, I want to do so for their sake, not for my reputation. I’m motivated by wanting to do the very best work I can, work that reveals the hierarchies of power and that works to level them, even if only in small or indirect ways. In the end I’d rather love and be loved now than remembered after I’m gone.

Dave: I don’t care about being remembered. I’ll be gone, so what’s the point? Also, what Alix said.