Behind the Art: Edition III
Welcome to part three of 'Behind The Art', by our columnist Stuart Fowkes, featuring artwork inspired by prophetic visions, supplied by the European Space Agency, and shot by your best mate, who just happens to be Bonnie Prince Billy.
Here are the stories behind albums from Sigur Rós, Alt-J and Guardian Alien, as well as the iconic Slint record sleeve celebrating its twenty-first birthday.
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Slint – Tweez/Spiderland (1989/1991, Jennifer Hartman Records/Touch And Go)
As well as looking at the artwork of records that have only just seen the light of day, it'd be a missed opportunity if we couldn't also find out the stories behind some classic album art that's inspired designers, musicians and fans over the years. With that in mind, and to kick things off, we caught up with Slint legend David Pajo to have a chat about the iconic black-and-white sleeves of their records Tweez and Spiderland.
The Tweez sleeve, a monochrome image of a car in the woods, marks the beginning of the band's photographic relationship with their long-standing friend Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Music etc.): the car was Will Oldham's father's, and you can see Will in the driver's seat, wearing a helmet. David reckons that "the way Slint 'Tweez' replaces the words Saab 'Turbo' on the grill of the car looks cool. On the back cover is a detail of the headlight – it looks like there's a ghost figure in the headlight!" The Tweez vinyl has the sides labelled 'Bemis' and 'Gerber': these are more testament to the playful nature of the record than its naming motif of title tracks coming from the band members' parents: "Those are words taken from toilet seats – just funny words."
Listening back to Spiderland twenty-one years on from its original release, it remains a fresh, compelling and moving experience, but how does David appraise it after years of releases under his belt from the likes of Palace Music, Zwan and Papa M? "It took me a long time to appreciate it. For many years I saw the intention of Spiderland and could only see how we failed in relaying that intention properly. But now I recognize it for what it is. Considering how young we were and the way things were back in the late 80s, I can finally see that it's pretty impressive."
The artwork for the record is now almost as iconic as the stunning album it represents, but ironically it was never intended as a cover image in the first place: "We set out to take band photos, not album cover photos. I think our label in England needed some promo photos of us so Will shot two rolls of film in two locations. Will is a great photographer – he has an amazing collection of photos from around this time."
"I think it was Brian McMahan's idea to use this photo for the cover. They were a few other choices but we all liked that one the best."
The back of the sleeve reads 'interested female vocalists write 1864 Douglas Blvd Louisville' – as David recalls, "a serious request. I think Brian wasn't happy being the lead singer and we were both really into Julee Cruise-type vocals. The most memorable request is that a very young PJ Harvey sent us a letter saying she would like to be our singer."
Much has been said of the cover creating a myth around Slint (sample quote: 'The group – submerged in a lake to their chins with deranged smiles – seem to be stalking you, hovering out of the black-and-white façade...'). David's reaction is more that the sleeve "captures the youthfulness and fun we were actually having at the time, despite the darkness of the music. I like that people see it like that, though. The photo is incongruous with the audio so I can understand how it seems enigmatic.
David's honest enough to admit that while Slint were attracted to dark, dramatic colour schemes from the start, they also "didn't have any money so black and white (plus maybe one other colour) was all we could afford."
Even in 1992, often much of the information you could glean about an underground band as a whole would come from their record sleeves and poring over every detail for clues about what lay behind the music. In 2012, of course it's a different ball game, as David reflects at the end of our conversation: "Artwork isn't as important any more. With LPs, you could really make a record mysterious and detailed. Squashed into JPGs for iPods loses all of that - artwork has to be dumbed down and reduced to simple (not minimal, per se) graphics.It used to be that the artwork would shape (and often enhance) your impression of the music. When I think of specific albums I visualize the album artwork. Not so much with current music. I like the convenience of MP3 players and I don't want to seem negative towards them, but vinyl is truly the ideal format to enjoy your favourite music."
Sigur Rós – Valtari (Parlophone, 2012)
If you had to name one band which does manage to develop a visual aesthetic that really develops and enhances what their music's about, Sigur Rós would be one of the finest examples. Their new record, Valtari (Icelandic for 'steamroller'), features an Icelandic trawler floating mysteriously above the sea, and has been extended to t-shirts, art prints and even festival blankets in the album's early days. We chatted to singer Jonsi's sisters, Inga and Lilja Birgisdottir, who designed the Valtari artwork, and the band's art director Sarah Hopper to get the inside story on how the stunning visuals around an equally beautiful album came to be.
Inga and Lilja, who answer all their questions together like a charming Icelandic hive mind, told us that the idea of the floating ship came directly from listening to the album: "The title suggests something really heavy and overwhelming, but when we listened we found the music to be floaty and airy, so that's when the idea of the floating trawler came to us. The trawlers are an everyday sight in the harbour of Reykjavík. So this was our attempt to bring some magic to something everyday. We took the pictures with this beautiful old Polaroid camera and used damaged film so the colours came out kind of strange and dreamlike."
Sigur Rós are among the few bands whose artwork seems to match their music perfectly across releases, something Sarah believes is because "the band always work together with people they know very well and are close to them. Artwork is like clothing - you dress how you want to be perceived, though mostly this is a sub-conscious thing. Sigur Rós are not fussy people and lean towards more a natural/textural visual language which reflects them and their environment."
For Inga and Lilja as designers, it's important not to create something that becomes too dominant: "The music needs its space for the listener to develop their own worlds. The artwork can also be a pathway for the listener to create his or her own visual world. If it is well done it can make the music more tangible."
Part of Sarah's job as art director for the release is to look at how the Valtari trawler will be translated across other formats, which this time round included wool blankets only available from the band's own online store and long since sold out: "I take the artwork and develop ideas for the merchandise. I really wanted to do a collaboration with someone using Icelandic wool because wool and knitting is a very important part of the culture. We also felt that it would be good to support Icelandic industry. The idea came out of a romantic fantasy of being at a summer festival at dusk wrapped up in great big blanket. The artwork or parts of it will appear across a number of items over the next few months."
This sense of tangibility and creating a limited-edition one-off for fans is becoming increasingly important not just to drive actual sales of a record, but in getting fans to buy into what a band's all about. For Sarah, "There will always be people who want to experience the tactile nature of a record sleeve, the sound of vinyl, the feeling of Icelandic wool! It's what makes us feel human. Perhaps one day when we are all suffering from repetitive strain injuries and we're all wearing glasses from staring at screens, the pendulum will swing back towards the object."
Alt-J –An Awesome Wave (Infectious, 2012)
Alt-J have been making (awesome) waves across the music press for most of the year, so we spoke to Gus Unger-Hamilton from the band about working with the European Space Agency for their new album artwork.
The band were up against their label's deadline for coming up with album artwork, so they resorted to Googling 'delta' (y'know, the eponymous Alt-J shortcut makes a 'delta' sign, for any PC users reading this) for inspiration around the ∆ symbol. Gus tells us that instead of the delta symbol, "it was coming up with satellite images of geographical deltas, which looked kind of amazing. So we thought perhaps we could use one of these images for the artwork, creating a visual pun on the idea of a delta/∆... The image is of the Ganges delta, and was kindly given to us by the lovely people at the European Space Agency to use for our album cover."
In terms of retrospectively fitting the artwork to the band's sound, Gus feels that "it's quite psychedelic, which is a term we definitely don't mind having applied to our songs. Also, the abstract and indeterminate nature of the image - most people can't figure out what it is - somehow fits with the hard-to-pin-down aspect of our music and its genre (or lack of)."
Unfortunately, the band aren't able to use the cover art for merchandising, which Gus feels is a shame "as we think it would look amazing on T-shirts, but on the other hand is quite nice, as it will remain just the album cover, and nothing else. And we quite like the idea of our merchandise being original and one-off pieces, rather than just splashing the album artwork onto anything we can flog."
Is there an overall look and feel for Alt-J's artwork that we'll see reflected in everything they put out from here? "Apart from the typeface we use - FF DIN Light, a very modern, efficient German one - we don't strive for much uniformity. However, we avoid having text on the front of our records, as we prefer artwork to speak for itself. The ∆ symbol has proved to be a nice way to tie things together aesthetically as well."
Guardian Alien -See The World Given To A One Love Entity (Thrill Jockey, 2012)
It's not often that bands claim the artwork for their records comes to them fully formed in a waking dream, which is why when we heard about it we had to talk to Greg Fox from Guardian Alien. He reckons that the cover and title were "given to me in the midst of an experience that I had in 2010, which the cover art depicts. I was fully awake and sober at the time, which I feel I need to explain because most people when I tell them this either assume that I was dreaming or tripping. He landed and addressed me by name, and told me that he wanted to show me a record that I was going to put out, called See The World Given To A One Love Entity. He handed it to me, and showed me the cover art, which was the image of him showing me the cover art."
"My intention was simply to make the thing I was told I would make, to have faith in the initial message and experience and pass it along. The added imagery is taken directly from the I Ching, for good luck, protection, and healing.
So how do you reconcile an experience like that with the music at the other end? "I was given the art and title way before the music was realized, and when I put together ‘See The World...’ as an arranged piece of music, I very much had the art and title in mind."
There's something special about bands who actually produce their own artwork too, so polymath Turner Williams Jr. from the band, also a notable painter, created the final artwork. Greg recalls: "I told him exactly what I wanted the cover to be and asked him to do it, and he did it better than I could have ever imagined it being done by anyone. I love it. It's one of my favourite paintings in the world."
"I mean, can you imagine having a completely uncanny and unexplainable experience, and then having someone paint it in incredibly great detail, for you and others to look at?" When you put it like that, no, we can't.