Morbid Angel was my baptism of fire
I hated school, I hated pretty much every moment of it really. The only times i was really happy learning anything at school was in art. I was lucky I had really supportive parents when it came to art, they invested time and cash in me getting a portfolio together so I could get into art college, I spent quite a few years training in both Graphic Design and Textile Art. During those years I worked on many projects centred around music. Actually, one of my tutors told me I really should give up on this idea of becoming a designer/artist for bands as it would never lead to a real job and I should consider looking at different areas for the future. Obviously I ignored that and went my own way. After Uni I worked in a record shop for about a year and used that to try and find out more about what labels were about where I lived. I wasn’t too far from Nottingham so I’d make trips in to catch up with a gothic label there, Nightbreed Records. They ran a store for their CD’s and other goth catalogue right out of the office. So I went down, load of sketchbooks in my hands and simply said I want to make an album cover. Trev, the guy running the label gave me my first job, paying me in 10 copies of the CD when it was done. He also suggested I pop in to Earache Records just down the road and see what they say. I did the same, rocked up to the office with sketchbooks full of fucked up ideas and had a chat. Obviously being a much bigger label they wanted to see what i did first with Nightbreed and see how I got on. It's about 1999 and I’m talking with Earache a lot and get my first chance, working with a band called Gandalf ‘Rock Hell’. Was some Carcass/Cowboy inspired concept. Anyway, while in the office handing over the files I checked out what other releases they had up on the massive project board, Godflesh best of ‘In All Languages’ was up there, I said I needed to do that and got my first chance to work on a well known band, that was my first full cover to cover release for Earache. We kept in touch, I did lots of freelance stuff for them over the next few years (The Haunted - One Kill Wonder special edition, Napalm Death, Sleep & Carcass reissues on Vinyl, Decapitated ‘Nihility’ LP layout etc). During that time I would write off to labels, it was a lot different then, you’d send off a disc with artwork on it, email wasn’t so great for sending images, there was no Facebook, Myspace was about all we had and that was terrible.
I got to work with labels like Cold Spring, did a release with Nick Rhodes and did some cool bits and bobs but in the end I worked pretty much for Earache. Eventually Earache offered me a full time position as Designer and Production Manager, first day on the job was working with Morbid Angel on the ‘Heretic’ album, that was a baptism of fire. My time at Earache was awesome and I still keep in touch with the guys now, big shout out to Dan Tobin for being such an amazing mentor during that time, it’s really easy to get wrapped up in the pressure of a job and totally lose sight of what you are trying to achieve, I learnt a lot from that guy and apply it to my own business. I even have a white board with all my projects on!
After Earache I spent a year with Kerrang! magazine but working there and living in London wasn’t for me at that time, it actually lead to a pretty dark period, as a result of the Kerrang! connection I found myself in touch with Hammy from Peaceville, I ended up getting the job to create the artwork for the My Dying Bride album ‘A Line Of Deathless Kings’ as well as the single ‘Deeper Down’. I’ve pretty much been working with Peaceville on many of its releases for the last 10 years. As well as working with Peaceville I work with Listenable Records on a regular basis and have been the creative side of Trondheim Metal Fest over in Norway for 6 years now.
Every project i get involved with is generally first of all working out what the personality is like, either of the single band member I work with or the group/label as a whole. Direction can come in many ways, it may seem you are getting a pretty simple brief but when you realise you have a band that change their mind a lot it usually better to go with your gut instinct and lead them rather than let them lead you. Having said that I work with Darkthrone and Autopsy a lot, past 5 years I’ve worked on everything with those guys and they know what they want and it’s actually a lot of fun to work with a group that know how you work while also making sure they get what they want. You’d think younger and more fresh bands would lack direction more than the older more seasoned guys but you find that amounts the band there are so many years of power struggles by the time I get involved in the album process you can find it’s quite hard to keep everyone happy.
I think they are very closely related, we all know how strong a visual piece can become with the correct musical collaboration. Music was always a huge influence to me, flicking through my dad's old LP’s and associating the visual concept with the sounds I was experiencing for the first time, trying to work out in my head why this Uriah Heep album cover scared me so much while listening to it. Maiden equally too, Seventh Son was a fantastic eye opener. I guess later I would start to explore different artists like Chris Cunningham and what he was doing with Aphex Twin for example.
I think these days keeping a constant flow of visual stimulation is pretty easy, things like Pinterest are handy when looking through stuff online, checking out what other people find inspiring through social media, or following magazines like Juxtapose. Generally tho, I think those lightbulb moments of inspiration can come from anything like music, art and films as you would expect, but i do find i’ll get hooked on a particular film, mainly biographical ones like Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon. I think a healthy interest in the past, will always help inspire.
I guess my origins story is slightly unusual, especially for the area I have ended up working in. I was brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, each week they would have 3 meetings, one of which was a study group, in which 1 book of the bible had been dissected and illustrated for the congregation to discuss and learn from. I’d say I was about 11 at the time when we started on the book of Revelations, an infamous book that, as you’d expect was pretty amazing to a young mind like mine. From then on I knew I wanted to take the creative skills my parents had encouraged and explore the more macabre. Part of the religious upbringing meant I was not allowed access to certain types of music, so I would create my own covers so I could hide them from parents and any other JW’s who would visit. I got more and more into creating my own tape layouts and imagining what the cover should be like, I never got to buy any and would get tapes secretly from a guy at school. Artwork by the mighty Derek Riggs and PUSHEaD really scared the JW’s. I remember reading about Deicide in the Watchtower and thinking I need to know more about these guys. It was widely known I was becoming a black sheep as it were.
As far as other inspirations go, early on I fell in love with Dali and the surreal artists, I’d buy postcard books from museums on school trips of Dali’s work, or Giger. Bosch, Bruegel and Durer etc. were later influences during art college, as well the discovery of what is known as outsider art, generally artwork created by those without artistic training, usually the work of those in medical institutions, or asylums as they were known. I would recommend to anyone to check out the Prinzhorn Collection. Basquiat was another influence on the way I was drawing too.
At the same time all that was inspiring me through Uni the late 80’s and up to mid 90’s industrial scene was pretty much all I listened to, through Nine Inch Nails, Front Line Assembly, COIL etc. I discovered Dave McKean, which, I’m guessing any graphic designer after the mid 90’s will have been inspired by him. I was lucky to be at art college when he did a seminar as a favour for a friend over at the Uni opposite the college I was at. Was a pretty major moment really, thinking back, getting to hear him give us all this practical advice about going out and experiencing and experimenting the world of art, design and music while at the same time some of my tutors were telling me the opposite. He had an exhibition on at the same time, while I was wandering through he came up to me and we talked about his work, we talked about using photoshop etc. as a tool rather than looking at it as a blank canvas. I still think like that now, I’ll happily create a texture, base for my work before moving to digital.
I think the meeting with Dave McKean back in ‘97 or whenever it was really helped shape my style, while everyone I was working with on my graphic design course was fighting over the available Macs to get time on photoshop I was abusing the photocopier and cutting and pasting and making the stuff I wanted then manipulate later. I guess it was seen as a rather backward approach considering the ‘new’ technology. I’m not sure if I could pull out one piece of work that would illustrate my style, I like to change it around, my illustrative or graphic work is very different from my photo manipulation pieces and then my 3D work is just a totally different style. Having said that, it’s always dark, miserable and macabre.
At the moment I’m not involved in any networking or organisations, I did run (with 2 others) a group called Danse Macabre, we put on exhibitions, performance art events, had gatherings for similar creative minds, getting magicians, writers, painters, illustrators, animators, games designers, graphics and web designers, musicians etc together, just to socialise and see what the melting pot would create. The last show I put on was going back about 5 years now, in New York. I set up a studio, went there for 3 months to create artwork and finish the stay with an exhibition which would combine local artists and those around the world. It was a pretty hardcore experience. I’d really like to do another show, I have ideas for a few but time is such a hard thing to come by now. I’d really like to do an exhibition inspired by religious art, from all over the world, to celebrate the artists who created such amazing visual tools for the religion, they’ve been a huge inspiration to many, I’d say especially within the metal world I work in. I have been asked by 2 new galleries being set up in the Midlands if I’d like to get involved in the programs so I guess my ambition outside of work is to produce more work that doesn’t have the ideas of a client imbedded in it.
Interview by Alex Milazzo - Copyright 2016 © Heavy Metal Artwork. All rights reserved.