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ore than most music, metal is visual. Heavy music requires heavy presentation—thus the emphasis on live shows, stage presence, miles of hair. But the take-home message is just as striking, if not more so. Denied the hit single, and consequently shunning it, metal revolves around albums. Metal album artists aren't just producing images; they're constructing visual languages. Recurring characters like Iron Maiden's Eddie, Motörhead's Snaggletooth, and Megadeth's Vic Rattlehead—courtesy of Derek Riggs, Joe Petagno, and Ed Repka, respectively—have become the genre's mascots. Artists like Pushead, Andreas Marschall, Wes Benscoter, and Kristian Wåhlin have crafted some metal's most iconic covers, with practitioners like Travis Smith, Paul Romano, Niklas Sundin, and Justin Bartlett building vibrant oeuvres today.
This week, Stylus salutes five artists who have pushed boundaries in metal artwork—Orion Landau (Relapse Records), Larry Carroll (Slayer), Stephen Kasner (Khlyst, Sunn O)))), Dan Seagrave (Entombed, Suffocation), and John Dyer Baizley (Baroness, Pig Destroyer). Kasner says, "[With] modern day metal, there seems to be a lot of opportunity to shake people up and intentionally not give them what they expect. Not the skulls and flames—that stuff's so predictable. Who wants to see that anymore?" Interviews with these artists revealed recurring themes—the tension between fine art and graphic design, the joy of working by hand in an age of Photoshop, and a desire to make more than just product. In other words, MP3's just don't cut it. Click on the links to see images in their full-size glory; check back each day for more interviews and artwork. For supplementary materials and interview outtakes, visit Invisible Oranges.
John Dyer Baizley
Orion Landau is the in-house graphic designer for Relapse Records. Thus, he's behind much of the imagery in any good metal record store. In a past life, he pioneered the '90 rock poster revolution alongside peers like Frank Kozik and Lindsey Kuhn. But despite having such high commercial impact, he's quite self-effacing. Landau stresses that he's working with and for others: "I do this because I really enjoy working with bands and other creative people. I'm just excited to get to work every day." He needn't be so humble. His portfolio is as diverse as his clients, but "Layout by Orion Landau" is a guarantee of strong, memorable design.
How did you get into doing art for music?
I started when I was a kid. I was helping put shows on in high school; I would always do the flyers. As I got older, I started a t-shirt press in San Francisco called Psychic Sparkplug. I was doing band shirts and rock posters. It just went from there, and I eventually came to Relapse from that.
Do you have formal art schooling?
Yes, I did go to art school. I never finished because I was actually making a living doing it. I actually didn't have time to finish school (laughs), so I was very fortunate.
Can you talk more about Psychic Sparkplug?
In the early '90s, there was a poster explosion coming from the West Coast. Me and Frank Kozik and Coop and Lindsey Kuhn were the first guys doing it. Psychic Sparkplug was an art collective that pulled a lot of broke artists together. We were putting out really cool, bright, obnoxious posters and having a lot of fun with it.
On the Psychic Sparkplug page, I see posters for Agent Orange, Bad Brains, Boss Hog, some big names. Which were yours?
Bad Brains, Marilyn Manson—a majority of them. I literally did hundreds and hundreds of posters. I did some stuff for KISS. Those are some of the bigger names. We were cranking out two posters a week for years.
What media were you using?
I drew a lot, and I was doing collage art. One of the artists that influenced me the most was John Heartfield. His stuff was so powerful and simple and symbolic, and really seemed to dig into the collective consciousness of humanity. I always gravitated towards that. Whether my stuff looked like his stuff or not, that was my primary influence.
What other artists have influenced you?
So many—I enjoy so many different styles of artwork. It could be anything. The big ones would be, as far as painting goes, Francis Bacon, and for the photomontage stuff, John Heartfield.
After Psychic Sparkplug, how did you come to work for Relapse?
Rent got really out of control in San Francisco. I was tired of running the shop. It was too much work. I just wanted to design full-time, and an opening popped up at Relapse. So I gladly took the job, because I was so excited about the bands on the roster. Bands like Neurosis, Unsane, and Today Is the Day—those were my favorite bands.
What's the process for designing an album cover for Relapse?
It really depends on the band. Some bands give me completely free rein [and] they don't have any ideas. But I always have them send me their lyrics. I'll read their lyrics and make a visual interpretation of what I'm reading. One of the more important things I want to say is, I'm not a fine artist. I'm just a designer. These bands, they work so hard, a year, two years, writing this stuff. What I do only takes a couple of weeks at most. So I'm just trying to help them visually create their concept. A lot of times, the ideas behind the album covers are theirs.
You make this distinction between fine artist and designer. Can you go more into that?
A fine artist is expressing himself. A designer takes other people's ideas and makes them the best he can.
Do you do artwork that is fine art, that expresses yourself?
No, not really. I'm usually too exhausted (laughs).
Do you have a preferred medium in which to work?
Unfortunately, due to the fast-paced nature of this kind of work, you have to work digitally on some level or another. I may do some work by hand—I may start sketching out paintings, for instance—but it always ends up getting cleaned up on the computer, because that's the way I can work the fastest. And I enjoy it. I enjoy it, because you can make something look very polished on a computer. But I also like to make it feel human, and not too Photoshopped.
Is there any particular album where you made a point to add a human element?
The new Cephalic Carnage layout [Xenosapien] has a painting in there.
Is it the guy with the horns?
Yeah, the evil Jesus. Rwake [Voices of Omens] was another one. Zeke ['Til the Livin' End] was a painting. If you look at the Coldworker layout [The Contaminated Void], it's a photomontage, but there's a lot of hand-sketching that's brought into Photoshop and laid on top of photographs I've taken. And what that does for me is, it doesn't have a sterile feel to it. One of my favorite album covers ever is Reign in Blood. There's something very human about it, even though it's basically a photomontage.
How does copyright work? Do you assign it to the label, or do you keep the rights?
The label owns it, because they're paying me a salary. If a band wants to take it, then often it's just given to the band. But the label has first pick of what it does with it, [like] merchandising or whatever.
Now, I'll ask you about some specific album covers you've done.
Gadget - The Funeral March (Relapse, 2006)
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The first is Gadget's The Funeral March. Did you get any instructions from the band? What was going on in your head?
The idea behind that came to me in a dream the night before I came into work. I'd actually sketched it out and sent it to [the band] before they came to me with any concepts. Before that, they'd been using very abstract things for art. I felt that the music was so aggressive and in-your-face that I wanted an image that you could instantly grab onto. They're very into this biomechanical splattering. [The cover] looks the way they sound to me.
Nasum - Grind Finale (Relapse, 2006)
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This biomechanical theme seems to run throughout your work. Nasum's Grind Finale has a USB cable on the cover.
That was all Anders Jakobson. What we wanted to do is tie their whole career into one release. When you think Nasum, you think gas masks and gears. They wanted to have barbed wire on one side, merging into the future with the USB cables on the other side.
Premonitions of War/Benumb - Split (Thorp, 2005)
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I also see that biomechanical theme in the Premonitions of War/Benumb cover. Is this an idea you consciously think about?
No, not at all. I'm sorry, I have no idea why all those things are biomechanical (laughs). I'm just drawn to powerful symbolism, and it happened with those album covers that there was some symbolism that seemed to work.
Nile - Annihilation of the Wicked (Relapse, 2005)
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One I must ask you about is Nile's Annihilation of the Wicked. The colors really jump out.
I worked really closely with Karl Sanders on that. Everything that we've done together has always been deeply rooted in Egyptian mythology, which is really a lot of fun to work with, because there's a lot of strong imagery to pull from. We just wanted to take those symbols—the wings of Ra and the scarab and the sacrificial dagger—and make it a metal cover. The thing that was fun with Nile, with [Annihilation] and in In Their Darkened Shrines, is that I really got to play around with very strong, simplistic, powerful imagery that wasn't that death metal.
Whose idea was the red?
Oh god, I can't even remember. I remember the idea behind the red—we wanted to have this feeling that the sacred temples were on fire, that this was the last day of some sort of dynasty, and there was this blood red of sacrifice. We also wanted to convey power, and red is definitely the most powerful color.
Total Fucking Destruction - Compact Disc Version 1.0 (Bones Brigade, 2005)
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The last cover is Total Fucking Destruction, Compact Disc Version 1.0. That's quite unlike other things that you've done.
(Bursts out laughing) That was done with (drummer/vocalist) Rich Hoak after work—this was when Rich worked at Relapse—in literally 15 minutes. That's not my artwork. I had found these informational posters for schoolchildren in Mexico at a flea market. And they were just hilarious. It was like everything that was wrong with the world. I had brought them into work, and I was showing them to Rich, because I thought he'd really appreciate it. And Rich said, "That's it! Just chop those up and make it into an album cover." I was, like, "That's not my art." He was, like, "I don't care."
I assume no one has come asking for royalties.
If the government of Mexico comes after Total Fucking Destruction, it will be the greatest thing that ever happened for that band. The press on it alone—you can't buy that kind of stuff. Whatever repercussions they suffer from it would be well worth it.
If you want, I can alert them to that.
(Laughs) You might want do to that.
Larry Carroll is hard to find. Evidently, it took Slayer a year to track him down to do the cover for its latest album, Christ Illusion. I took less time to find his info—but I can't replicate the Google search. Carroll would probably prefer it that way. Restlessly itinerant, he maintains no website nor portfolio, letting word-of-mouth be his calling card. Digital copies of his work are almost impossible to find, except for his most famous creations—covers for Slayer's Reign in Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons in the Abyss. However, he's appeared often in print, having done political illustrations for The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Progressive, and other publications.
Recently, Carroll's drawings and paintings appeared in the third issue of Mollusk, a German/French art magazine. It's as elusive as the man himself, but it offers perhaps the only glimpse available of his current work. It also contains text by him, which itself deserves framing, as his Internet presence consists mainly of a Wikipedia stub and a tantalizing quote in Decibel. The text depicts an outlaw life—a studio destroyed by fire, a painting sold to pay for a new one, that same painting stolen back by Carroll (with subsequent jail time) because he didn't trust the buyer's intentions. To Carroll, art is not a commodity; it's an extension of his independence.
Do you have formal art training?
I went to different schools in California. But my work has long since departed from that.
Your paintings and drawings in Mollusk are representations of people, but certainly not conventional ones. Is that the way you see people?
It's interesting that you use the words, "how I see people." I paint my paintings with my eyes closed.
Are all your paintings done that way?
Those paintings and drawings that are in Mollusk were all done with my eyes closed. I opened them, of course, to look at what I'd done. Since I'm such an observer of life, I try in some way to download the image from my experience that I've registered from walking in the city or visiting some place or looking at someone. I try to download that onto the canvas. I literally close my eyes and paint the image. If I don't like it, which I normally don't, I scrape it away and paint it again and again and again until I find something that resembles what I'm trying to get at.
I collaged a mouth on one of those pieces. It's called Hollywood Smile. I was living in Hollywood. It wasn't my intention; it was a very spontaneous thing, but it felt like plastic surgery. I purposefully on those paintings restricted the palette to two colors. I wasn't interested in loading the content with color and pulling those emotional strings. I took the most banal colors—brown, which most people can't stand, and white, which makes for a muddy combination. Shit colors. I wanted to find beauty in that.
Hollywood Smile (Oil on canvas, finished between 1996 and 2006)
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When did you start painting with your eyes closed?
About 8 or 9 years ago. Before I would go to bed, I started doing what I called "sleepdrawing." I wanted to unlearn my way of drawing. So I started drawing at night while I was falling asleep—drawing with my eyes closed, opening my eyes, and then correcting it. Not so different from what you're taught in school. They would set the model up and you would draw, but you wouldn't look at your page to stay focused on the model—a technique that's been around forever. I just took it more literally.
What was beautiful was that I would start to fall asleep, and the lines would trail off the page. Often I would have the start of a face, and I'd wake up and see four or five lines trailing off the page—almost the same kind of line you would see if you had an electrocardiogram. There was a pulse to the line. It would go a quarter-inch, stop, go another quarter-inch, stop, go another quarter-inch, stop. Sometimes when I was tired, I would start to write words. And in the morning, I couldn't decipher what they were. It was really interesting doing these drawings. By doing this for several years, I then started to do the portraits.
Sleepdrawing (Ink on paper, date unknown)
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There's a story where some people offered you good money for a painting, and you refused.
You can't trust a lot of people to do the right thing about your work. A lot of them just want to sell it and move on to the next artist. I'm looking for a different kind of relationship. Because I've done illustrations, I don't really need the money for other stuff. I don't feel I have to show these paintings that I'm making. I will someday, maybe down the road when the situation's right, but I'm a little suspicious of the system.
Have you done artwork for other bands?
I'm doing something now for a guy in New York called Ill Bill. Kind of a controversial guy. So I did a very, very controversial cover, which I really can't talk about much because it's not public yet (laughs).
In the past, have you done other album artwork?
No, I haven't done a lot of albums. I've done a lot of political work for The New York Times, The Progressive, The Village Voice, and some magazines like that. When I did the first [Slayer] cover in the '80s, I was doing a job for The Village Voice. Rick Rubin had seen some of my work, and I'd met him shortly after he was out of NYU. He had just started Def Jam.
Slayer - Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986)
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Did you like Slayer?
They're a California band, so I knew a little bit about them. I didn't listen to them a lot. But I liked the freedom that they gave me. They really didn't tell me much of what to do.
The cover has a Hieronymus Bosch-type of multiplicity of figures.
It just kind of grew out of a rough idea of something about a goat's head. So I had this papal kind of goat being paraded through hell, referencing different parts of the song. Basically they left me alone, and I didn't go into the lyrics of the songs too much or anything like that.
What media was this?
It's a mixture of drawings that I do and collages and photographs that I take and manipulate. I might draw on the photograph and then Xerox it. Since the '70s, I've been using all kinds of reproductive materials, long before Photoshop and all the other stuff.
Do you still have the original?
I don't have the original, no.
What happened to it?
I'm trying to remember (laughs). I might have given it away to someone. I know someone wanted one of the images very, very badly. And I said, "OK, fine." But then the schmuck sold it to someone, which really pissed me off. And then another [cover] I think a record company asshole kept, 'cause I saw it on eBay. Someone called me about a year ago and told me something was being sold on eBay.
Slayer - South of Heaven (Def Jam, 1988)
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One of your other Slayer covers.
I forget which one. I blocked the sale, but then it turned into this weird story of someone bullshitting me, and there's no way I could get a hold of this guy. So I lost out on that.
These things are classics. They should be somewhere safe.
I agree. But 20 years ago, I was running around; it was a different time. At that time, things aren't a classic at the moment, which means you have really no idea how culture will award that.
Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss (Def American, 1990)
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South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss look more like paintings.
They're both collages. I'll make a drawing and change the scale of it through Xeroxing. For example, I might draw an element, but I don't want to draw the same stupid thing 20 times, so I'll Xerox it 20 times. Then I have 20 of the same thing that I've drawn in different sizes, and I can screw around with different exposures on the Xerox machine and get some interesting effects.
You did this classic run of three covers for Slayer. Why didn't they use you for the one afterwards?
I have no idea. I can make some guesses. I don't know what the success of the other two albums (Reign in Blood, South of Heaven) were, but if something is awry in that, then they often look for changes. Maybe somebody said, "Let's try a different packaging." And by the success that they had on the earlier Slayer covers, then [for Christ Illusion] maybe they felt, "Let's return to a more classic Slayer feel. Let's try to find that guy if he's still out there." I almost became a fifth member of the band by the way they were describing it—"the team is back together again, reuniting."
How did you feel when you got that call?
It was out of the blue. I was glad it came. 20-something years ago—to have that unexpected return to something was fun. I like that kind of thread through the work. I think more people should try to stick to that if they can.
Slayer - Christ Illusion (American, 2006) [Original Painting]
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On the Christ Illusion cover, the Christ figure has a Christ figure on his chest. Is the main figure even a Christ figure?
It's obviously more of a metaphor for all that. The first image I had on the chest—I had "Slayer Jihad." I had "Slayer" written on the chest, and below that I had "Jihad." They were a little uncomfortable with that.
I really don't know. You can only guess at why they might have shied away from that.
Of all bands to shy away from controversial imagery...
I don't know. Maybe they just felt, "Let's keep Slayer off of that figure and have the image speak for itself." I don't know where it came from, but that was a comment that came in there.
So you didn't have complete freedom?
I sent in a work-in-progress. The first comment I got back was, "He looks too healthy." Which I agreed with. It wasn't like that in the beginning; he looked a little healthier. By that response, that's when I cut his arms off. And then I made him more emaciated.
I don't send sketches. If I send something, they're going to comment, obviously. A lot of comments, I don't listen to. I just ignore them and continue doing what I do. The only thing I changed was the word "Jihad." Around the time was the Danish cartoons [controversy], and I don't know whether they wanted any reference [to it]. I don't know what they balked at.
Had you heard the album?
I had. I think it was a very mature album for them—politically speaking, relevant.
The CD cover was really small, so at first, I didn't notice the Capitol building and the oil wells.
Not only is the Capitol building there, but the World Trade Center is blown up there. And there's a reference to Reign in Blood on one of the tattoos on the Christ-like figure's shoulder. In one of the balloons that's floating up, there's one of the portraits from Reign in Blood. There's a lot of little subtleties that [are] hard to see when reduced down to [CD size]. But they made a limited edition print. That print is 24 inches by 24 inches, [so] you can see a lot more. It's a shame that CD's are so small, because you lose so much information.
Do you feel your work on Christ Illusion tied in to your political work?
If the content is strong, why not have the image just as strong? I never wanted to shy away from that. I want to work for places like The Progressive. They would let you do whatever you want. Once there was an article on Nicaragua on the death squads who would come into town and rape all these women. So I did a drawing of a guy standing over this woman with this big dick sticking out, and the woman's legs are spread, and he's about to rape her. And they let me do that. I really respected that. It wasn't gratuitous at all. It was just done for the reality of it. It wasn't done for shock. If that's shocking, then it should be.
So I did this for Nicaragua, and I do something for Slayer. Maybe a 15 year-old kid is listening to it. But I think they really have something interesting to say. You can try to create an image that can provoke something, get you to think about or question something. You don't get a lot of opportunity in print to do that, unfortunately. So many people shy away from it. When you have an opportunity to do an image that is able to do something, that has some weight to it, then it's interesting to me.
Mollusk Magazine #3
Stephen Kasner bypasses clichéd symbols and cuts straight to the subconscious, illuminating the ineffable. His artwork bridges dream and nightmare, light and dark, male and female, human and animal. The images may be frightening, but that's because we see ourselves in them. Kasner works in paint, photography, and drawings, as well as experimental music under the name Blood Fountains. He has done album artwork for Khlyst, Himsa, Eyes of Fire, Liar, Integrity, and Martin Grech, among many others. Kasner recently released the book WORKS 1993-2006 (Scapegoat, 2007), a lavish career retrospective with text by various artistic luminaries and collaborations with Seldon Hunt, David D'Andrea, Steven Leyba, and Steven Cerio.
Your bio contains the phrase "Strife of the human animal against the austerity of nature." Are those your words?
So that's a concrete theme you're working with.
Yes and no. It's not something that, while I'm working, I'm overly conscious of. I know I want to make that sort of connection, but I'm not trying to do it literally. When I work, I work very unconsciously. I'm very focused, but I don't have a specific image I'm trying to capture. After a period of time working on these things, one starts to see particular shapes and images that rise from the unconscious.
Do you think there's misanthropy in your work?
Yes, to some degree. There most certainly is a sort of darkness. I'm really not crazy about that word—it's typical and overused. [But] the world is really a very dark place. I think that happiness and joy are extreme rarities in the world. I don't think that they're easy to come by. Most of the time we have to deal with darkness and anger and upset and heartbreak and strife and struggle.
But people, more times than not, just maintain their sanity or are in denial about these dark elements. If you focus on them too much, you'll go completely mad. It isn't really thrilling or wonderful to brood all the time. But I also think that these very things are what connect me to music—and a particular type of music. A lot of the people I've ended up working with maintain a similar point of view about these types of feelings and this type of existence.
It's certainly not intended to be completely black and overly dark. There is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. But it's rare. It's work to find it.
How did you get into doing art for music?
Many years ago, while I was just graduating from college, I had two paintings that were in a large group show. There were a couple guys [there] in a band called Craw. I had seen Craw play quite a bit. These two guys from Craw came up to me and said, "We've been having this contest for people to submit work to be the cover of our first album. We've gotten a lot of submissions, and people have really been trying to illustrate our music." I believe at that point they had even settled on a submission that was going to be the album cover. They said, "But despite everyone's trying to illustrate the music, what you've done here is perfect. It perfectly expresses what we're trying to do."
And I was honored. The fact that people, not just your average people, but creative people, musically inclined people, and certainly geniuses, were not only interested, but it had touched them in this way—that was a great boost. That Craw record did pretty well. After that, I started hearing from other musicians. Some people I'd work with, some people I wouldn't. I don't work with any band that comes along that would like to work with me. There has to be an emotional connection.
You got a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Did your studies have a specific focus?
I bounced back and forth between the illustration department and painting department. Even though I don't necessarily consider myself an illustrator, technically, my main focus was on illustration. But I had a specific reason for that. The painting department was a little too liberal for me. It was an "anything goes" kind of scenario. Since I was naturally gravitating to works that expressed something specifically emotional, I liked the conceptual challenges that illustration brought to the table. It's very much like music, or working with a band. You have a set of tools, and you have a set of rules. And then you need to find a way to work that out.
Illustration for me did that more so than just painting. Painting is a thing where you can come up with your own concepts and express that. I do that now. I've always done that. But as far as being in college and refining your skills, I thought that working with specific conceptual problems was a better foundation for me. Despite the fact that I did receive my major in illustration, I also received double minors in drawing and photography.
I talked to Orion Landau, and he made a distinction between fine art, working for oneself, and graphic design, working for someone else. Do you see a similar type of distinction?
It can go both ways. When you're working for a band, it depends a great deal on how many ideas the band has. If the band has really specific ideas, you're pretty much going to be illustrating those ideas. But if you're working for a band that gives you total free rein, then maybe that borders more on fine art. It's a gray area. You see examples of graphic design utilized in fine art. Who's to challenge that? Who's to say that just because text and graphic design are utilized in this piece that's hanging in a museum, that it ceases to be fine art?
You said that you're having a difficult time relating album art to the "art scene."
I personally know a lot of really talented artists that focus on working with bands. These guys are incredible painters, photographers, designers, every bit as talented as any major artist working today. But for some reason, [for them] there's this wide inaccessibility to galleries and collectors. And it completely escapes me. I don't understand why it becomes a lesser form of art. It's not taken seriously.
That's my beef with it. And [it's] certainly something that touches my life personally. I've had my fair share of dealings with galleries. They'll say, "Oh, you're the guy that does album artwork." It's odd how a gallery might focus on something like that. I think that's radically unfair. I'm hoping that's a state of affairs that changes. I am doing everything in my power to change that. If I have a gallery exhibition, I talk about music and my album artwork very openly with people. I don't try to hide it. I'm proud of it. It's all part of the same thing.
Do you think this ostracization comes from guilt by association? Maybe artists are working with bands that gallery owners and clientele wouldn't like.
I don't know. It would depend on the person. I've been in a situation with a gallery where they've said, "Oh, you're the guy that does album art." I've also been in a situation with a gallery owner who might say, "Oh, yeah I have that Sunn O))) album that you did the artwork for." If they're into Sunn O))), and they connect with that emotionally, then they don't question it as much.
One of the other things that I think is hypocritical is...I'm a big Damien Hirst fan. I think the guy is a genius, and I relate to his work very, very much. So Damien Hirst—he's established himself as this tremendous fine artist. But if Damien Hirst wanted to, which he has done, he'll direct a video for a band. He has done artwork and design for certain bands. Nobody questions that. If you're already been established as a fine artist, it's not taboo. But put the shoe on the other foot—if you're someone who's rising out of the music community, you're not given the same credibility and opportunity to float into the fine art world. It's a double standard.
Ironically, if you do artwork in music, your art probably touches more people than in fine art. There are so many more albums out there, whereas if you show in a gallery...
I agree. No doubt.
You paint while listening to music. What has been the soundtrack to your studio recently?
I've been listening to the last two Earth albums a lot. I think they're fantastic. I've been listening to a lot of Electric Wizard and a lot of James Plotkin's stuff, primarily because not too long ago James was kind enough to supply me with everything I didn't have. So, of course, I've been going over that stuff quite a bit. I've been listening to the new Brian Jonestown Massacre, whatever the newest one is. I've been listening to weirder stuff, too. I've been listening to a lot of Bohren and der Club of Gore. I'm always listening to Sunn O))) and bands like that. I really enjoy dark drone music. Anything really hypnotic and slow is cool with me.
Is all your work by hand, or do you do any work with a computer?
I do work with a computer, but it's usually only circumstantial. If I'm doing album art, I tend to use the computer more because my paintings can take a really long time. Some of them are really big. I like to paint in real scale. Most of my figurative works are the size of human beings or bigger. It could take me months to do a painting, especially working the way I do, which is sort of an unconscious method. So when you're working with bands and labels, and there are a lot of other people involved, and people have money and deadlines involved, you don't have that luxury with time.
Khlyst - Chaos Is My Name (Hydra Head, 2006)
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Let's talk about specific covers that you've done. One of your most recent ones is the Khlyst one. How did you come to do it?
I'd been friends with James Plotkin for some time. We'd always talked about doing something together. I was always pushing to do stuff for Khanate. But Khanate was really predominantly Stephen O'Malley's vision and fine art. That never really worked out.
But when James was working on this project, he asked me if I'd be interested in doing it. He sent me a rough mix, and, of course, I was all over this thing because it was atypical and challenging. James told me, "This thing's probably going to go over everyone's head. So it probably will not be a tremendous release. People will have a hard time understanding that." But even that description inspired me. People don't usually understand my work, either.
It was great, man. James gave me complete freedom. I listened to this disc repeatedly and went with the flow, just started painting. The only thing that was premeditated was that I knew what the packaging was going to be. I knew there was going to be a three-panel digipak. So I did one main painting that went across three panels, so it was very narrow and very tall. I knew the other one would be a single panel or a poster. So I had this narrow piece and one square piece. I worked on them for a couple months, and it turned out that James was really pleased.
Khlyst - Chaos Is My Name (Hydra Head, 2006) [Poster]
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It seems to have a pretty feminine energy, something that would not have been possible with Khanate.
I agree, I agree.
Himsa - Hail Horror (Prosthetic, 2006)
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Anyone that knows your work would be surprised that you'd done something for Himsa. How did that come about?
That took me a little bit by surprise, too. The band reached out to me. Same kind of situation—[they] gave me a demo of what they had and also gave me total free rein. That helped. I was friends with a couple guys in the band. We weren't close friends, but I was acquainted with them. It seemed like a cool album. Those guys have always been really nice to me and very gracious. So there's no reason I had not to.
Those guys are actually really big fans of Integrity, which I did some work some years ago. And they have such deep admiration for Integrity, the band and the concept and the work I did for Integrity, that they were going on that in the hopes that I would do something in the same vein. So I tried to approach it in a similar way. I'm actually really proud of the Himsa artwork. And there are also some feminine qualities in the Himsa package as well.
Eyes of Fire - Ashes to Embers (Century Media, 2004)
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The Eyes of Fire cover seems pretty delicate.
That piece was one of the very first that I really employed digital manipulation on. It is one of the pieces of mine that look more digital than any other, probably because I was over-analyzing and trying to learn as I went. I photographed actual paintings that were in progress, and employed various textures and things like that. I didn't really know, once I brought it all into the computer, how it was going to turn out, but I really am pretty happy with that piece. It may look Photoshopped, although I'm surprised by how many people think that's straight painting. A lot of times people ask to see "that painting."
Trephine - Self-Titled (Public Guilt, 2005)
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One of my favorites of yours is the Trephine cover.
Yeah, I love that. Those guys are great. Those guys are really good friends of mine. Of course, very specific band name, very specific theme. Sort of a turn-of-the-century, Victorian surgery, Victorian medicine kind of thing. It's something that I'm personally fascinated with. So I just had a blast. That stuff came really easily.
Ruhr Hunter - Torn of This (Glass Throat, 2002) [Liner Notes]
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One that looks like it used photography was Ruhr Hunter.
There was a strange time in my life where people were bringing me dead birds that they were finding (laughs). I was on the East Coast, and it was the dead of winter. People were finding birds that had been frozen and bringing them to me. I started photographing them, not really knowing what I was going to do with them.
I had the photographs for quite some time. When I was working on the Ruhr Hunter project, which has a great deal to do with darkness in nature, it seemed totally appropriate. I employed some cutting and pasting and some collage-type of stuff, and a little bit of digital manipulation to sever the bodies off these things, because it was something I had been doing in my drawings and artwork. I wanted to see if I could do that digitally.
There's the two birds that are coupled. It was strange, because the birds came from two different sources, and they were both in these strange death throes. And when I put them together, they formed together beautifully. There's a photograph of them coupled, and then each individual and decapitated. Whatever that stuff means, I don't know. It's pretty grim!
Dan Seagrave was that kid in school who didn't draw people as stick figures. Self-taught, he was inspired early on by John Martin and M.C. Escher, whose apocalyptic and architectural influences, respectively, are evident in his art. In the early '90s, Seagrave became the go-to guy for death metal artwork, crafting classic covers for Morbid Angel, Entombed, Suffocation, and Gorguts, among many others. Recently, he wrote and directed a short film, Shadowline, which will hit the international festival circuit soon. Seagrave currently divides his time between Toronto and Nottingham.
How did you get into making art for music?
It was just a case of hearing a band from my village at the time, and hearing that they had a record deal. I just offered to do some artwork for it. I'd done artwork for demo CD's and posters for local bands around Nottingham. It just seemed like a good opportunity to do a painting which would get published.
That was for Lawnmower Deth. That's what got the ball rolling. Earache Records and all the other record labels at the time who were producing death metal were observing what each other were producing. That's how I got to be able to work for Roadrunner and all the other labels. It was like dominoes.
Do you have a favorite medium to work with?
I use acrylic, which I've been using for 12 years now. All the old-school stuff from the early '90s was done with gouache paint.
Why did you switch?
I started doing paintings which were about 50ish centimeters in diameter. Gradually, the paintings got smaller because you can get such fine detail with gouache. I realized I didn't need to paint them that big, so they became quite small. The problem with gouache is, you have to paint exactly what you see in your head. You have to put the colors exactly the way you want them, because it's a water-soluble paint. [If] you apply water to it, it will still mix and run on the board, which means you can't layer it or change anything. Once you put it there, that's it.
Then I started doing larger paintings in Toronto using acrylic, and I just preferred it. It had more flexibility. You can change things. You can paint over it, because the paint goes dry. Once it's dry, you can't mix it, but you can paint over it. But you have to work differently with the paint, because you can't mix on the board. You have to work in dry layers.
Is your work all paintings, or do you do any digital work?
I prefer to have an original painting, because it's nice to have something you can hold or keep on file. I don't like the idea of producing a digital painting just in the computer because it's all information that will be lost eventually. You can't hold it. You can't observe it. I like to go to the gallery and look at a painting and see how it's been made.
What happens with your original paintings of album covers?
They're all locked away in a metal file. I don't display them; I haven't sold any of them.
Hopefully, you have them insured.
Possibly (laughs). They're safe. They'll be fine for future times. I'm not sure what I'll do with them eventually. It would be nice to put them somewhere, but I don't want to look at them myself.
You don't ever want to have a show?
Possibly. But it would be very expensive to do that, because they'd all have to be framed in a similar way. And framing is extortionate if you're going to do it properly. And then shipping it to the venue and insuring it—it would cost a hell of a lot.
Morbid Angel - Gateways to Annihilation (Earache, 2000) [Original Painting]
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What steps are required for a painting to become an album cover?
It has to be photographed. This is why a lot of people produce art digitally now. It's expensive to create a painting and then take it to a photographer. You've got your digital file or your piece of film, which then has to get scanned. If you just do it on a computer, you don't have to spend any money. So I have it photographed, then bring it back into the computer and make little minor adjustments. Then it goes onto an FTP site or on a disc to the record label, and that's it.
Do you leave room for them to add the band logo?
I instinctively leave an area. I don't really like to work around a logo, because the logos are usually very spindly and spiny. If you worked around it, you'd make a painting that looked weird. So I don't think about the logos too much. I leave that to them to sort out. I worry just about the composition of the painting, and getting that right.
Yeah, logos...they're usually not that brilliant, unfortunately. Some of them are good, some of them aren't so good. Some of them work at different scales, others get completely lost. That's one of the things that tends to be unfortunately not considered too much.
Speaking of scale, are you chagrined that your painting gets shrunk to CD size?
No, not at all. I'm fine with that. Usually, it will show up in different formats. There might be a poster or some other thing that appears with the artwork. I myself might produce a print of it later on. I think in the long term, really. If it's a good enough painting, it should have a lifespan independently of the CD case.
So you retain the rights to your work.
I do now. A lot of the stuff for Roadrunner, I sold the rights. But these days I have my own contracts, and I retain the rights to all the work.
What artists or stimuli inspire you?
I don't really get inspiration from other artists' work. I get inspiration from architecture and walking around cities or ancient places. I like to look around the more decrepit areas of cities, places that are run down.
Shadowline, 2007 [On set with Seagrave and actor Paul Fuller]
That comes through in the trailer for your film. Can you talk more about that?
It's a 10-minute short film which I wrote and directed. The idea works in a literal way, but you could also be watching somebody's nightmare or dream. It's about this mysterious drifter who comes back to the city and finds an old coat in an abandoned factory. Inside the coat pocket is a diary with a picture of someone, who he discovers is a missing person. The rest of the film is about him trying to find this missing person, and these phantom clues that are pulling him to the particular place where he ends up, his destiny.
Will it see any release?
We'll put it into many, many festivals, but obviously the festival has to accept it. It's going to be going around the world. We're going to be sending it everywhere. And hopefully it'll get picked up in some of these festivals. I'm pretty confident it will.
Entombed - Left Hand Path (Earache, 1990)
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For this cover, was this piece already done, or did you work with the band?
That one, I didn't work with the band. I worked with the record label. But I did it for the album; I didn't have it lying around.
How do you feel about it now?
It's an amateur painting. I was 19 when I did it, I think. It's almost a bit of a joke, really. It's not a good painting. It's not structurally good. The design isn't good. The writing on the tombstone is silly. I suppose I was having a bit of a laugh at that point.
When did you feel you were no longer an amateur?
In 1990, I'd done a few bad paintings, and I was still figuring out how to paint. I'd say in 1990, I didn't do anything particularly good. Probably '91—the Testimony for Pestilence. If you look at it now, it's not brilliant, but it's not bad for the time and my age. So '91 was the year where I turned the corner and got better at what I was doing.
Pestilence - Testimony of the Ancients (Roadrunner, 1991)
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The Pestilence covers all center around the theme of the sphere.
I invented that for the Testimony cover. The sphere is based on an astrolabe. And the one I did after that—Spheres—what they wanted [was] to use this sphere thing as an ongoing symbol, which was fine. But I didn't like the idea of it being the exact same thing. I had the idea there could be lots of different kinds of these spheres.
I came up with a cover for Spheres which was not the one which was published [and] which I thought was way better. But they wanted it to be the same sphere. So I redid it, and they sent me a photograph of a solar system, black hole thing, and they wanted the painting just like that. And that's why Spheres is not a very good album cover. They had this reference material that I had to replicate. That just made it a very stiff kind of illustration, which didn't turn out very well. I didn't have the creative freedom I needed to make it for myself.
Invocator - Weave the Apocalypse (Black Mark, 1993)
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This reminds me of Nintendo games like Contra and Metroid. Did you have anything like that in mind?
No, not at all. I don't even know those.
You've never played Contra?!
No, no, never.
At the end of the levels in the original 8-bit Nintendo version, when they go into the dark chambers, the architecture is a lot like that.
Is that right? Well, that must have been done after I'd made the cover, because I did that a long time ago.
I think Contra was before you. Maybe it's a cultural subconscious type of thing.
All I did was draw some shapes on the board and paint them. I didn't have any design or anything like that. It was a different approach. Before, I'd do a drawing and some sketches and I'd paint that. With this one, I just painted something from nowhere. So it's a bit more organic in that way. That's why it's slightly weird. It's not really anything.
Becoming the Archetype - Terminate Damnation (Solid State, 2005) [Original Painting]
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Becoming the Archetype are a Christian band, and in an interview, they pointed out you weren't Christian. Did that cause any issues?
I am actually a Christian. How would they know that? They never asked me that.
Oh! They said you weren't.
They don't know anything about me, do they? (Laughs) Not that I go to church, because I don't practice it. But that is my background religion. I think what they're saying is that I don't go to church. Or that I'm known for doing death metal covers, and therefore I'm anti-religion or something like that. Nobody's actually asked me that. For all anybody knows, I do go to church. But I don't go to church, actually. I'm not anti-religious. I've got no stance on any of that stuff, really. I'm ambivalent towards it. It doesn't matter, and therefore I don't have any issue "switching sides" if one were to portray it in such a way.
So if Deicide approached you for a cover, would you work for them?
I don't think so. I don't think their music and what they've done in the past—I don't see how my work would fit into what they do. And I don't think they would see that, either. I think they already have an established feel and look. And they are actually Satanists. I don't care about that stuff. I think it's a bit silly, because not all the music is about that. And I've never really thought about that stuff or considered it. I'm not interested in that side of it at all.
JOHN DYER BAIZLEY
Bands and labels, take note: John Dyer Baizley does not want to do any more skulls. "I really just am over it. A lot of times I'll submit something, and somebody goes, 'Oh, we were hoping there'd be some skulls in there.' And I'm like, 'My god, man, how many releases came out this year with skulls on them?'"
Ironically, skulls are among what he does best. His style is instantly recognizable, sending classic motifs like women, flowers, and skulls through explosions of lines, colors, and symbols—think Pushead on acid. Baizley fronts Savannah, GA sludge metal outfit Baroness, which has a new album due soon on Relapse. He's done artwork for Kylesa, The Red Chord, Black Tusk, and Daughters, with forthcoming album covers for Pig Destroyer, Darkest Hour, and Torche, among others.
How did you get into doing art for music?
Through the band I play for—I play guitar and sing for Baroness. When we were designing our physical sound, I had hand-in-hand a very distinct visual identity I wanted to portray for the band.
Do you have formal art training?
I attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI for about three years, and dropped out prior to becoming a senior. Then I took about four or five years off of any sort of visual arts. As soon as Baroness got up and running, I got back into the swing of things.
Why did you take such a long break?
It involves a lot of personal issues I was going through at the time. When I moved away from Rhode Island, I underwent a cleansing of sorts. I lived a very simple lifestyle out in the middle of the country—no car, no TV, no phone. I stopped doing everything I had been involved with. Once I moved out to Savannah and started playing music again, all the tension and creative impulse that had been building up finally had an outlet. It was difficult, and I was a little apprehensive at first about making art again. But I knew that was what was first and foremost in my life. When it happened, it really happened.
Orion Landau made a distinction between fine art and graphic design. Do you agree with this distinction?
Yeah, wholeheartedly. In fact, to call myself a graphic designer is sort of an insult to graphic designers everywhere because I feel like I've never had a sense for it. It's just been recently, born out of the necessity for creating a whole package or visual identity for record sleeves, that I've even put my hand to the design aspect. My interest and training has been entirely fine arts-based up to this point.
Is the difference between fine arts and graphic design philosophical or technical?
I would say that it's highly philosophical. It seems often visually fairly obvious, but it's definitely easier to get to the heart of that matter in talking to people who consider themselves graphic designers and artists. "Fine arts" is kind of a weird term when you're dealing with music. When I think of fine art, I think of upturned noses and fucking gallery exhibits and shit like that. I'm not necessarily there right now, so I consider myself an artist, for sure, [but] I don't know how "fine" my art is.
With graphic design, there is a philosophy behind that that is not necessarily geared towards the individual making art. Whereas the artist—I would hope that people who ask me to do art for them are asking because they glean some pleasure from the way that I, in particular, do it. If I were a graphic designer, I would solely work [based] on their opinion.
Three themes recur throughout your work—women, flowers, and skulls.
I think the themes that you mentioned are not ultimately the themes that I'm working with. With the female figures, the flowers, and the skulls—they're instantly identifiable trademarks of music. I choose them because there's that classic element.
The real themes that I work with are the underlying themes. A skull as a metaphor or as an icon—how many ways can you stretch that and where can you take that? I can do one piece of art that incorporates those three things, then turn around and use those exact same three icons and say something thematically almost bipolar. Up until this point, I've chosen a few visual references that work for me. Georgia O'Keefe had flowers. Everybody's got their things.
I see an interplay between life and death, like the skull with vegetation around it.
That's maybe the first level thematically that I'm working with. I generally tend not to ruminate too long on death. That said, that juxtaposition is part and parcel of what I'm doing. Let's bring it in the context of the metal band. The majority of bands [deal with] life versus death. That's the classic [theme] with metal and hardcore punk. What I try to do is subvert the norm and that level of thinking and try to put something a little deeper into it. It can be enjoyed on its outward level, but if you're a prying mind that really digs, I put much more into it than that.
Do you think what you do conveys any Southernness?
Yes, but that's just simply a proximity thing. I think every artist out there does what they know. I was raised in the South and know the South more intimately than I know the rest of the world. But I would not say that I make any conscious effort to play on it. It is just what it is.
Pushead is obviously one of your big influences.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, that's what was getting me excited. I lived in a very small town, and while I would later come to develop an admiration for some of the old '70s artists, like Rick Griffin and Roger Dean, when I was young, everything to me was about hardcore and punk and heavy metal. That's who visually was doing it for me. There was Dan Seagrave, Ed Repka, and those guys, but I connected with Pushead, because I loved the bands he worked for.
What grabbed you about Pushead, as opposed to Repka or Seagrave?
Whereas Repka is such a master at the craft, and Seagrave's works were more on the death metal thing, I was a punk kid. I definitely identified with the rawer side of things. And Pushead's raw and visceral without even trying.
What media do you use?
I use extremely traditional media. Everything starts off as a pencil sketch. Everything ends up black-and-white ink on paper. In order to color it, I use watercolors and inks. I stay away from the digital realm until I need to send it somewhere. I have little to no facilities with the computer. Recently I've been doing layouts and entire packages, so I'm giving myself a crash course at home. I'm a latecomer to the game, and there are so many dudes out there that do it better than me. I like a paintbrush, I like a pencil, I like a pen—things that have a more organic feel to them. I obsess over the organic qualities of art.
Baroness - First (Hyperrealist, 2004)
The first Baroness EP seems to draw on a '70s rock style.
That seemed to be the approach to take, as far as our ideals go. What we were interested in at that time was very much involved with that '70s aesthetic.
In the middle, where the text gets smaller and smaller, it goes into this black that looks like a pubic region.
Yeah, it almost mirrors an ovary or something like that. If you go through my stuff with a fine-tooth comb, you'll find hidden compositions like that. I'll compose a picture plane with something that is half-symbolic for me at the time, and then mask it in imagery. That's exactly what I was talking about before. Since I'm working in such an already-done format, you have to put something of yourself into the art. That comes out with me often with hidden meanings and compositions.
Baroness - Second (Hyperrealist, 2005)
In the second EP, you're using a male figure, and he's looking outwards, as opposed to the female looking inwards on the first EP.
Right. And you'll notice he's slightly more erect, no pun intended. When we first started the band, we wrote both those EP's at once. We decided to put out a masculine record and a more feminine record—not in a cheesy, overt way, but it definitely was intentional. There's definitely more meaning to that stuff that I'm not entirely willing to divulge, because it's just part of the music.
Baroness/Unpersons - A Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk (At a Loss, 2007) [Original Painting]
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Now I'm looking at the split you just did with Unpersons.
That one is highly, highly, highly symbolic. There's a lot of visual cues there. It was something that I conceptually collaborated with the singer from Unpersons, Sanders, because it was our release and their release as well. That piece is not even based on our music or Unpersons' music. It's based on something that has a great deal of meaning to Sanders and me.
The finished product adds text and the band logos. This happens, of course, in the layout process. Does this bother you?
No, I understand its place. In doing album covers, it's entirely presumptuous of me to think that I can get away with doing any of this without putting a band logo or text on it. The text is sort of a necessary evil. When possible, I have as much say as I can in it. If it were up to me, the albums would carry the brunt of their meanings without words. But there are few artists that can get that across. I certainly would struggle for a very long time for some way to visually say "Baroness" and "Unpersons," and without song titles.
Pig Destroyer - Phantom Limb (Relapse, 2007) [Original Painting]
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Did you think at all about the band's previous artwork, in which women have figured prominently?
I did think about it. And honestly, the picture wouldn't have come out any differently otherwise. It wasn't that I was referencing Chris Taylor in the artwork. It just so happened that they had used the female figure on prior records. I thought that was a tradition worth keeping, especially considering that it's a tradition I had been following on my own path.
Torche - In Return (Robotic Empire, 2007) [Exterior Painting]
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I'm looking at an outside, and an inside with the members' faces. There's a circular theme going on. Is it a space for text?
On the interior painting with the portraits, there's the circle that contains the album credits. The album itself is going to be presented in a format that, as far as I know, is unique. It's coming out as a 10" record, and over the top of the portraits, there's a die-cut where the CD version of the record is. I believe the CD is also enhanced with MP3's.
So you have to buy the record, you have to buy the CD, and you get the MP3's, all at the same time. It only comes in that format; it doesn't come in CD-only. And on the outside, where that main planet is, there was originally going to be text there. But [now] this album is rather unique in the fact that the text on the front with the logo, and the text in the back with the song titles, are presented as a sticker on the plastic wrap. So when you pull the sleeve out, you get more or less just art.
Torche - In Return (Robotic Empire, 2007) [Interior Painting]
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I've interviewed tons of people in metal, but the interviews with artists have fascinated me the most. Part of it's novelty. But any metal fan will attest to the importance of artwork in the feeling of metal.
Yeah, and especially in this time. Relapse is about to put out our record, and I know that 80% of the people will be listening to it on iTunes, and 90% of those listening to it on iTunes just stole it from Lambgoat or something.
To be a visual artist in music right now is an uphill battle. Everybody that's doing it gets my huge props, because we're trying to keep people buying CD's and records. Nobody wants to do that anymore. We're trying to not only create compelling art and be interesting and keep ourselves occupied, but we're also trying to have people keep bands on the road by buying CD's.
John Dyer Baizley
Baroness on MySpace