Interview with Ballpoint Horror Noir Dennis Dread
Dennis Dread is a self-taught artist who creates macabre and fantastically detailed drawings in a heavily shaded style he has referred to as “Ballpoint Horror Noir.” His work regularly appears on album covers throughout the world, including collaborations with such highly regarded musical luminaries as Darkthrone, Autopsy, Abscess, Saturnalia Temple, Dead Moon and Bobby BeauSoleil. Born in a bathroom in 1972 and raised in New York’s folklore-rich Hudson River Valley near influential historical locales such as Sleepy Hollow and Sing Sing Prison, he enjoyed a childhood punctuated by late night monster movies, homemade comic books and an early passion for the esoteric mysticism of world mythology. Following numerous cross-continental misadventures, Dread jumped off a freight train passing through Portland, Oregon and the “City of Thorns” has served as his headquarters ever since. A tireless cultural force, Dread has championed heavy metal and underground art through his cut & pasted zine Destroying Angels, his carefully curated group exhibitions and his massive new book Entartete Kunts, published by Ajna Bound in 2013 and featuring 42 heavy metal and punk inspired artists from around the world. The Minister of Poseur Extermination speaks…
HMA: Welcome Dennis Dread to our site. Promoting Metal as Art & Culture.
Dennis Dread: Thanks for taking an interest in my work, Alex. From the description of your website, I’d say we might have a few things in common.
HMA: What is your background and how did the Metal journey began?
Dennis Dread: My interests in both art and heavy metal were sparked simultaneously at a very young age and can be traced back to one particularly bloody childhood afternoon. I was running around my family’s tiny apartment while my mother was at work when I fell into the sharp corner of a heavy wooden table. There was blood everywhere and my older brothers, who were also quite young and probably shouldn’t have been left in charge, thought for sure I had lost my eye. They tell me the only thing that would comfort me was playing Kiss Destroyer, which had only recently been released. I adored that iconic Ken Kelly painting of the band dancing over the ruins of a burning world. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time and my four year old brain was completely mesmerized. I realize it must seem ridiculous to anyone who didn’t experience the 70s as a totally suggestive child, but Kiss was like nothing else at the time. The closest thing I can compare it to for younger readers might be discovering Transylvanian Hunger or Watain at the perfect moment. Anyway, my oldest brother played my favorite song, ‘God of Thunder’, over and over to calm me while he cleaned my wound and tried to figure out how to get me to the hospital. Afterwards he gave me his copy of that Kiss record as a sort of badge of honor. Looking back, that experience was something akin to a Zen caning. I was baptized in a wave of pain and adrenalin. I have associated powerful music and great art with blunt head trauma ever since that fateful day.
HMA: I believe you are currently studying literature and comparative mythology. Can you tell us why such topic and subjects?
Dennis Dread: Nope. That was a looong time ago, Alex. I barely have time to read books at all these days. To answer your question though, if I understand you correctly, I’ve always been drawn to esoteric symbolism in both art and literature and world mythology is rife with powerful metaphors and mystical archetypes that somehow speak directly to my soul. The trendy buzzword these days is “occult”, but ancient ancestral symbols have always resonated through the ages, despite the din of modernity. Ride the snake, pal.
HMA: You have also described yourself as “culture terrorist”. What do you mean by that? Who are we in conflict with?
Dennis Dread: That’s an allusion to the importance of keeping a spark of danger in my art. I don’t know who you’re in conflict with, but I am at war with any obstacle that stands in the path of my creative will. This thing we call “art” out of sheer convenience is the crucible of dreams, nightmares, fantasies, desires, fears, possibilities and, ultimately, empowerment and self-realization. It is the outpost of the soul and it is worth defending. The conditions of the modern world conspire daily to crush the spirit, stunt the intellect and sanitize artistic expression. I struggle to forge my own path and live so boldly that Death will shudder to take me. Anyone who gets in the way of these goals is the enemy. Fear is the oldest emotion of mankind. Terror is the tool.
HMA: Is “Destroying Angels” the medium to let out your emotions, artistry and philosophy?
Dennis Dread: It was for many years, but I haven’t published an issue of Destroying Angels since 2010. By the time I started assembling the first issue of Destroying Angels back in 1997, punk and heavy metal were in terrible slumps and print zines were rapidly disappearing. The internet was gaining momentum and print publications suddenly seemed obsolete. Zines were an important part of my own formative days so this seemed tragic to me. I set out to make something that honored the self-publication tradition that, in America at least, has its roots with science fiction nerds and, later, underground comix enthusiasts and counter-cultural radicals of the 60s. My zine was also strategic for more personal reasons. I was about to become a father at a relatively young age and knew that the uninterrupted time required to create my densely detailed drawings was about to become interrupted in many ways. I wanted to embark on a sustainable project that would nourish me creatively and provide an outlet but also require less time and much smaller increments of solitude. I used to rock my daughter to sleep and race off to the copy shop late at night to cut and paste my zine and continued that way, at a sloth’s pace, for many years. In hindsight, it all worked out quite well and lead directly to the group exhibitions I organized several years later which in turn inspired my new book. Entartete Kunts is essentially what my zine would’ve been if I had a virtually unlimited production budget and could print in full color instead of stealing cheap black & white copies at 3am.
HMA: What’s the publication really about? Is it still available?
Dennis Dread: There is a page devoted to Destroying Angels on my website if anyone wishes to take the time to learn more. Back issues are no longer available but I haven’t entirely ruled out the possibility of making a new issue in the future. Destroying Angels was based on concepts that remain meaningful to me, so I see no reason why I won’t continue occasionally self-publishing for as long as I feel inspired to do so. Zap Comix sometimes went a decade or so between issues but those artists somehow kept it going. I appreciate that kind of long term stamina and fortitude.
HMA: Any artist or unsung hero that deserves to be mentioned in this interview that is currently circulating in your head as we speak?
Dennis Dread: Pelle Åhman is a young artist from Uppsala, Sweden who is on my mind today and certainly deserves recognition. He is an artist of extraordinary depth, insight and unwavering devotion. His fire burns so brightly that I actually worry about him.
HMA: Recently you have been involved as a curator in the making of “Entartete Kunts”. Can you tell us about this involvement?
Dennis Dread: Entartete Kunts is entirely my vision and my effort so it is not so much a matter of “involvement” as it is a Gesamtkunstwerk! I organized several group exhibits here in Portland, Oregon which featured some of my favorite artists alongside my own works of art. I was approached by my longtime supporters at the Ajna Offensive to create a museum style art book based on these exhibits and more or less spent the last two years focused on this task. I was assisted by my dear friend AK Wilson who provided invaluable layout and design expertise. It was very much a do-it-yourself project with fantastic production values and the results are spectacular. It is exactly the kind of book I want within arm’s reach at home or in my drawing studio.
HMA: Correct me if I am wrong… is it the third book in the series?
Dennis Dread: That is incorrect. I think you are confusing the fact that I organized three annual group exhibitions in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It was these three annual exhibitions that inspired the book, and the book is designed in three sections or chapters that correlate with those years. But you raise an interesting thought. Perhaps someday we will look back and see Entartete Kunts as the first book in a series of books. Hmmm…
HMA: What’s the response like for this sort of printing material?
Dennis Dread: Pre-sales were stronger than we expected and the support has been overwhelmingly positive. It looks as though the book will be sold out very soon. Of course, I expect my share of bullshit internet commentary but that never distracts me from my goals. The tiger does not lose sleep over the bleating of sheep.
HMA: Artists that should be included on Heavy Music Artwork but aren’t there yet?
Dennis Dread: I honestly haven’t had a lot of time to peruse your website, but no study of heavy music artwork would be credible in my mind without attention to Philip Lawvere, Thomas Holm, Derek Riggs, Doug Johnson and Joseph Smith. In terms of younger artists I think it is mandatory to include Pasquale Reca, Kristian “Necrolord” Wåhlin, Timo Ketola and Manuel Tinnemans.
HMA: Moving on to your art… how best would you describe your style and technique?
Dennis Dread: Ballpoint Horror Noir. I draw almost exclusively with simple ballpoint pens so my style is heavily shaded and meticulously textured grey tones. Unfortunately, this style often reproduces poorly which is what initially motivated me to display my original drawings in galleries so people could enjoy the delicate nuances that are frequently lost in the printing process.
HMA: Your Darkthrone work is really unique and a surreal blend between Punk and Metal. How was this achieved?
Dennis Dread: Ted and Gylve came to me with a very specific idea in their minds. They wanted me to conceive an undead mascot, obviously in the tradition of Iron Maiden’s Eddie, that would combine their love for traditional heavy metal and crushing punk. In hindsight I was the perfect man for the job, and they somehow knew that. I understood what they were doing with their music during that trilogy of records and those drawings came very naturally for me.
HMA: Also there is a comic book feel in your style. Is it one of your main sources of inspiration or do your draw the creative fluid from other places?
Dennis Dread: I actually don’t read comics much at all, but they were important during my formative years as a pre-teen and there are certainly residual traces of that influence. I draw “creative fluid” from all kinds of places and I’ve certainly had poignant experiences in museums, libraries and the solitude of nature over the years, but the actual artwork that was available to me as a receptive young boy was album covers and comic books. Probably because the paintings on LP covers were the first art that engaged my eyeballs and imagination as a child, it seems natural that music and visual art have always remained very closely associated in my mind. I can hardly imagine one without the other. I think what thrilled me about both album covers and comics was how they created worlds of possibilities. They were like strange gateways for inner exploration and that sense of trepidation and wonderment is what compels me to create my own artwork to this day. We didn’t have the internet back when I was a kid so it wasn’t uncommon for people my age to sit with a record for long periods of time and develop a deeply personal connection to its imagery and sounds. That experience is totally lost on downloaders and MP3 file types. Most kids nowadays have easy unlimited access to music and art but without that personal connection, and the solitude it takes to develop that special relationship to art, it becomes nothing more than information. I stand opposed to download culture that prioritizes voracious consumption over quality engagement and enjoyment. I have devoted much of my life to experiencing the collision of real (as opposed to virtual) sensory stimulation that I spoke of earlier as vividly as possible. I hope that my own artwork might serve as a gateway for others.
HMA: A bit of a random question… what was it like working for “Mutilation Graphics”, what was your role back then?
Dennis Dread: Those were the strange days of my misspent youth! I was a misfit growing up and I moved out of my family’s house as soon as I could. I lived in a car and with my girlfriend for a short period of time and was more or less saved from total destitution when my pal Neil O’Leary called and asked me to silkscreen for his sleazy t-shirt company. He very patiently taught me the ropes of the business- and, believe me, I wasn’t very good at first- and basically became something of an uncle to me. I actually lived in the Mutilation Graphics studio for a while when I had nowhere else to go. Damn, I shudder to think of nights spent sleeping on a wooden crate that was more or less as comfortable as a coffin. But it was extremely liberating and fun at the same time! I still occasionally meet people wearing shirts that I printed way back between 1990 and 1994 and Neil remains a very good friend even though we live on opposite sides of the country.
HMA: How has the merchandise industry and creativity changed since then?
Dennis Dread: I have no idea. I don’t care about that kind of thing.
HMA: Why is Portland nicknamed “city of thorns”? Is it because of the soccer team “Portland Thorns”? Are there any other reasons?
Dennis Dread: That comes from a remark my old friend Diabolus Rex made many years ago. Portland is officially called the “City of Roses” because for some reason we have rose gardens all over the place. Naturally, not all of us here feel so rosey. It’s a joke that comes in handy especially nowadays when most people associate my favorite American city with that show Portlandia.
HMA: Thanks for the interview Dennis, much appreciated!
Dennis Dread: Thank you again for the interest in my activities, Alex. Best of luck with your website. You have my support in your mission to celebrate and document great heavy metal album artwork.
Dennis Dread’s book Entartete Kunts is available from Ajna Bound: www.ajnabound.com
Copyright 2013 © Alex Milazzo, Heavy Music Artwork. All rights reserved.