Sight, touch, hearing.
An interview with
by Joan Pons
There was a time when before listening to any new 4AD launch you already knew the album was going to be good. It caught your attention. The tips of your fingers told you so.
The dark night thickness, the Lynch-like enigma, the old-fashioned techniques, the strange still lifes and the matte chromatism of those covers typical of the label owned by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, first on vinyl and later on CD, caused admiration, promised prodigies, slipped mysteries and generated followers.
It was a mere question of days for each new member of the 4AD lodge to start scanning cover, back cover or booklet in search of the name of the author of the artwork of those peerless beautiful objects. There’s where we discovered that the object of our genuflexion was a single name: Vaughan Oliver, part of the 4AD team for almost twenty years: first as a freelancer, starting in 1980 already, and then from studio 23 envelope, and finally signing as v23.
This British graphic designer and illustrator changed the paradigm of record cover design. His work possessed synesthetic qualities unrestricted by any kind of form. The weight, texture or selection of a given photograph or typography didn’t respond only to the sense of sight, but to the rest of them too. The cover as atmosphere; as a state of mind; as music before, during, after and in parallel to music.
He’s to blame for the fact that each time we listen to the Pixies we imagine topless flamenco dancers, bulldog terrier profiles or mathematician monkeys; for the fact that each time we try to describe the music made by the Cocteau Twins we talk about haze, watercolours or stratospheres of beauty; for the fact that the Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill is known as the album “with the bed”; for the fact that The Breeders seemed Goddesses of fertility due to the colourful, strange and blurry Priapus illustrating their first album; for turning oxide into something attractive in the music of the latest Scott Walker; for the fact that we remember Ultra Vivid Scene’s toothbrush much better than Ultra Vivid Scene themselves.
Nowadays, he still has time to design some covers for small record labels (he’s worked for more people than just 4AD), to teach design at the university or give talks about graphic arts as the one he will give at OFFF. Oh, and also time to answer the questions asked by enthusiastic fans such as us.
From what moment in your career did you start feeling proud of the covers you created?
From the beginning! [He laughs]. I’m proud of all the artworks I did with Nigel Grierson in 23 envelope since we started working together designing covers. That is, since the first one we did for Modern English. However, it’s difficult to say from which cover in particular we started having our own signature, our own style. We took our work as a process, trying to improve cover after cover, trying to do something different from what we had already done with each new project. I like to think that our professional activity was guided by research and not by results. Having said this, when I see some of our first covers now, I’m obviously not completely happy with the way they were, but back then I was thrilled.
From the outside it’s probably easier to find the album (the first by Clan of Xymox?) in which to detect your personal style…
Probably, but to me, and also for other people with whom we worked as a team to create artwork for 4AD, until we participated in an exhibition of our whole catalogue, this recognisable style wasn’t so clear. And still, there’s nothing that can be so easily defined. A cover for Colourbox can be very different from a cover for This Mortal Coil and still, they have something linking them when you see them together.
In an exhibition we did in 1994 in Los Angeles, a student came to me and said: “looking at your work, I can see a soul, your soul” or something like that. In my country, people don’t say such corny things [he laughs]. It’s very imprecise. When you look at all the works together, you might detect a similar texture, even an intention, an outlook, maybe. You can also find unexpected aspects. “Up to today I hadn’t realised the amount of humour going into your work,” Ivo Watts-Russell told me during that same exhibition.
In fact, it’s far simpler: I simply tried, all through my career, to create a different identity for each band I worked with. Creating feelings or aesthetic moods derived from the music, from the texture and atmosphere the music itself already had. You would only get that thanks to a close collaboration and many conversations with the band in particular.
In parallel, I also tried to create a plastic identity for 4AD. Ivo, in this sense, always encouraged me to build this aesthetic personality little by little, from evolution, research and development… So managing to have this personal signature isn’t something that comes overnight, but with time. It’s the opposite of the “emotive branding” that is requested from today’s design: images that have to instantly move you, from the first contact. It’s absurd: aesthetic emotion always takes time. Again, Ivo Watts was right when, in the eighties, in one of his most inspired statements, he said that “4AD didn’t depend so much on the sales of each album as on how good the whole catalogue was seen in perspective.”
A personal anecdote: I confess that back on the day I listened to Surfer Rosa just because of its cover. In fact, my sister, who was the one that brought it home, also bought it because of the cover, without having heard or read anything about the Pixies before. How many times have people told you stories like this?
Many, but I’ve done this kind of thing too, buying records just because of their covers. I’m a visual person. And after, when I played the album… Sometimes I was deceived and others I loved it. The last time I bought something because I liked the cover and then I loved it too when I listened to it was an album of Corsican polyphonies [he refers to Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses With Hector Zazou]. Beautiful.
A cover should work as an entrance door that invites you to cross it. But the cover most people have talked to me about isn’t the one for Surfer Rosa, but the one I did for Doolittle. If I’d gotten a pound for each person who ever told me they decided to study graphic design because of that cover… [He laughs]. It’s a great responsibility! [Laughs even more].
It’s a very unique and mysterious cover, and also quite… risky. You combine and juxtapose very different, almost opposed (geometric forms, numbers, black and white photography…), elements in a way that many other designers wouldn’t ever dare to.
I wouldn’t know how to explain why it has become such an iconic and admired cover. I guess it’s because it seems to hide an enigma. And, besides, the mystery is respected. In fact, the whole visual inspiration comes from the lyrics of the song Monkey Gone to Heaven –“If man is five / Then the devil is six / Then God is seven”, also very mysterious. In a conversation with Charles (Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, that is: Black Francis/Frank Black), he said it was all a simple mathematic question. That’s why I placed an element on top of the monkey in the picture as a geometric pattern. I drew a kind of personalised Golden Number to mark and isolate the light and shadow points and the balance of the volumes in the composition of the image. It was like juxtaposing an algorithmic trace over a photograph. And in the end, I also used screen print elements to create the feeling of a visual echo to old printing techniques.
Very often, your covers show animals, objects or even words that don’t seem to represent their literal meaning. I’m intrigued by the use you make (in albums by Throwing Muses or Tarnation) of typography and calligraphy aside from what the words mean.
Well, I simply use text as though it were an image, not a text. To me it is another element of the illustration, not information. I guess this is due to my formation as illustrator. When I was a student, I hated lessons on typography and layout. Too many fonts, different measuring methods… So my approach to texts is an illustrator’s.
I’m also attracted by the painstaking craftsmanship of some of your most luxurious designs, especially box sets, in which packaging seems to hold anything but a record. I’m thinking of Minotaur FOR THE PIXIES O OR THE LONELY IS A EYESORE COMPILATION. ISN’T IT A RUIN TO LAUNCH SUCH A PRODUCT?
You mean they look more like objects than records? I do hope so! [He laughs]. Somehow, my goal was always to turn music into an object, granting it a physical dimension. With the box sets, that challenge seems even more fitting. Although I still laugh today when I think of Lonely Is a Eyesore. When Ivo decided to launch this compilation of new songs and artists from the label in an engraved wooden box that would be sold by a hundred quid it didn’t sound like a very profitable market strategy. Most of these expensive box sets are done with back catalogue stuff, music that has already been tested, not with new material. In any case, many of the people involved in its creation, not only me, worked on this launch for a symbolic price, precisely because we knew it was going to be a bit ruinous. But we loved the bravery of placing such a record-object in the market.
In this times of setback of the physical object, I wouldn’t say that this kind of projects remain just as a kind of memory of a lost object. It’s true that it’s a way of doing things from another time. But record cover design is still fundamental; there are still lots of people who want to do it. The cover, even if it has no physical presence, is another music tool. That’s why there are still covers today that are very… true. Any cover capturing and expressing the state of mind of the music it represents is true.
You mention collaborators, what is your working process with photographers (Nigel Grierson, Simon Larbalestier, Chris Bigg, Marc Atkins…) like?
Half of your work is done if you have chosen the right photograph and photographer. In the eighties, many photographers came to us to collaborate because it was a time of a great graphic design boom, but also of an art photography one. There were also many small and alternative labels that wanted to opt for young talent, for doing things a different way. In my case, I always tried to leave space for the photographers’ creativity. Once they know what I’m looking for, I step aside, I don’t control the process so closely. This usually brings better results. They explore the theme more in depth precisely because you grant them more freedom. Although I’ve sometimes used images that came from a portfolio. In Brooklyn Bridge Records, with Marc Atkins, for instance. All his material is very poetic and inspiring, I don’t need to give him any directions.
Is it possible that in some of the photographs you have used there are, let’s say, rhymes, even if they have been used thirty years from each other? I’m thinking about It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil and Good Day Today by David Lynch.
It’s possible, but I wouldn’t say it has been a voluntary thing on my behalf. David Lynch wanted a kind of angel on the cover… It might appear, yes, as a kind of sequel to the cover for This Mortal Coil. But although the mood might be similar, they’re different photographers.
I read that of all the bands you have made covers for, the Cocteau Twins were by far the most difficult to work with, the ones that gave you more complications. Is that true?
Absolutely! [He laughs]. The three of them were very articulate and knew exactly what they wanted. Still, I knew beforehand that their answer to anything I showed them was going to be a straight “No”. They never seemed happy with anything! It took a lot of effort to convince them that some ideas, apart from commercial, could be substantial too.
And what about the other extreme? What bands were the easiest to work with or you felt you were on the same wavelength?
Pixies, Lush, His Name Is Alive… They all understood perfectly that it was all about building an identity little by little both through their music and the covers. And this identity could be melancholic, or happy, it doesn’t matter. The main thing was to ask the band to receive my ideas with an open mind, for them to be receptive to novelty and difference. Nevertheless, it has always been very clear to me that the first people to please with a cover is the band and then, maybe, fans. I’ve been very lucky to always make covers for records that I would buy. I don’t know whether I would have been able to propose covers for music I wouldn’t listen to. I don’t know, in fact, whether I would have been able to grow with my work in any other company but 4AD or another label as small, which opted for alternative music. When you like the music you have to illustrate, then inspiration comes more naturally.
We’re almost done: why did you choose to specialise in cover design and not, I don’t know, book cover or poster design?
Well, I’ve designed posters too, although that usually came after the record cover. But the answer is very obvious: from an early age, my great passion has been music and, very soon too, the design of the object that contained that music. At fifteen I was fascinated by the cover of the first Roxy Music album, although later on I also admired some progressive rock covers, like the ones Roger Dean did for Yes or the Hipgnosis ones for Pink Floyd… When I started studying graphic design and said no one wanted to do record covers, my teachers used to say: “That’s not work. No one does that. The cover is something bands usually ask the drummer to do”. [He laughs] “Yes, well, you wait and see…” I thought.
You’ve mentioned Roger Dean and Hipgnosis, but not Peter Saville. Don’t you think his work and his relationship with Factory Records is similar to yours with 4AD?
Yes, of course. One always waited for any new Factory Records launch with expectation, sometimes simply to see what Peter had come up with. Still, I think that him and me are opposite extremes of the spectre: he’s very cerebral and I’m very irrational, or, if you prefer, very visceral.
The Breeders – Pod by Kevin Westerberg
Michael Brook – Albino Alligator by Chris Bigg
Cocteau Twins – Sunburst and Snowblid EP by Nigel Grierson
Cocteau Twins – Treasure by Nigel Grierson
Cocteau Twins – Head over Hills by Nigel Grierson
His Name Is Alive – Livonia by Beverly Carruthers
Language: Death or Cucumbers by Marc Atkins
Lush – Nothing Natural by Jim Friedman
David Lynch – Good Day Today by Marc Atkins
Pixies – Come on Pilgrim EP by Simon Larbalestier
Pixies – Surfer Rosa by Simon Larbalestier
Pixies – Doolittle by Simon Larbalestier
Pixies – Here Comes Your Man EP by Simon Larbalestier
Red House Painters – Down Colourful Hill by Simon Larbalestier
Tarnation – Mirador by Michele Turriani
This Mortal Coil – It’ll End in Tears by Nigel Grierson
Scott Walker – The Drift By Marc Atkins