Interview with Dan Abbott

OLM9_interview-dan_abbott_title

World renowned graphic designer Storm Thorgerson has designed some of the most iconic album covers of all time, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, Peter Gabriel’s first three solo albums, Muse’s Absolution and Dream Theater’s A Change of Seasons, among others. The compiled list is seemingly a mile high.

I had planned on contacting Mr. Thorgerson after wrapping up issue eight, but sadly he passed away on April 18th, 2013, from an undisclosed form of cancer. In his stead is Daniel Abbott who worked side-by-side with Storm at Storm Studios for over a decade. He discusses the ins and outs of designing album covers, what it’s like working with bands and his time with Storm.

One Louder Magazine: Hi Dan, thanks for doing this interview! Let’s start off with a little history. Growing up, did you gravitate towards music or art……or something else entirely?!

Dan Abbott: Hello there, nice to be here! I was very drawn to music at an early age, but mostly just listening to it very intensely. Making music never felt like an option, as we had no musicians in the family, and playing an instrument was something that “other people” did. But I did enjoy drawing. And I kept on drawing. Drawing and listening to music, often simultaneously. Northamptonshire, England was/is a rather boring place with the added bonus of rain, meaning plenty of time spent indoors. If I’d have grown up in California, I’d probably be a lumberjack by now!

OLM: How did you get into designing album covers? When (and how) was it apparent that you would be designing album covers for a living?

DA: Around the age of 13 I started getting properly obsessed with music, and did the usual things like drawing band logos all over my schoolbag. Big favourites were the Bauhaus logo (first band I saw live) and the Alien Sex Fiend (who I never saw) lettering. I also bought a bunch of records by Crass, and they had a major graphics thing going with monochrome fold-out sleeves and a mysterious, esoteric logo.

1 Bauhaus_logo

Bauhaus logo

2 Alien Sex Fiend lettering

Alien Sex Fiend logo

3 Crass

Crass logo

But I was also really into comics, too, particularly 2000 AD, home of Judge Dredd, among other legends. I sent them a drawing of Judge Dredd “unmasked”, where the lower part of his face was normal but up above he had eyes on stalks like a Martian snail, and they published it on the letters page! That blew my mind, and I felt like I’d made contact with the big world outside.

4-2000-AD_Judge-Dredd_Combo

2000 AD Judge Dredd comic book cover

By the age of 14 I was very much enamored with the music of Hawkwind – purveyors of  sci-fi themed psychedelic outlaw rock – and was surprised to find that someone in my hometown [Terry Hopkins] was publishing a Hawkwind fanzine called Orbit. So of course I went around on my bike, rang his doorbell and said “Hello! I love Hawkwind, too! Can I do some pictures for your fanzine?” and that was that. It was just a Xeroxed and stapled black and white thing, but nicely done. Back then, fanzines were a really important way of disseminating obscure musical information, like a paper internet. Anyway, that was the first proper connection between my “art” and music.

6-Hawkind_combo

Hawkind Orbit Electro-Syrinx Poster (left) and Hawkind Orbit Brainstorm Poster (right)

Some months later, I wrote to a band from Bracknell, Berkshire (art was taking me to exotic places) called The Magic Mushroom Band. I’d not actually heard them, but I loved their name. I wrote saying, “Can I draw some posters for you?”, and their funny and charming singer/leader Moonboot wrote back and said “Why of course you can!”. I was so excited…a real band! Genuine freaks who looked just like Gong (other heroes of mine at the time) with beards, long hair, afghan coats…all the trappings. It connected with my escapist fantasies at the time; maybe they lived in a commune, smoked water pipes, and possess secret musical knowledge that I need to know! They actually all lived separately in small modern flats, but apart from that disappointment, it was a thrill making posters for them. I also designed some buttons and other bits and pieces.

7 MagicMushroomBand-Poster(1986)

The Magic Mushroom Band Poster (1986)

That’s how it started, just writing to people and pestering them. By the time I left school at 16, I pretty much wanted to do this thing properly, though I’d never met anyone else in the “business” and didn’t have a clue how I was going to do it. I applied to the local art college in Northampton, and in the interview they asked me what I wanted to do. “Design record covers!” was my perky reply, but they chuckled condescendingly and said “You can forget that right away, mate, everybody wants to do that. Think again pal!”. Oh dear! So, just slightly embittered by that attempt to burst my little bubble, I signed on to unemployment benefit and just kept designing stuff for small bands, fanzines and the like. I began traveling up to London on a regular basis, meeting all sorts of exciting people, fellow music freaks and musicians.

OLM: In the early ‘90s, Storm Thorgerson opened Storm Studios, a group of about a dozen freelance designers. When did you start there and what were you doing prior to joining the team?

DA: I moved to London in 1991 and had a ball! But I was far from being able to support myself through drawing/designing in any way whatsoever, so I worked in a long string of office jobs, mostly for British Telecom, the telephone company. But it was still an exciting time. In the late ‘80s, through to the early ‘90s I created a lot of artwork for a small-ish magazine called Freakbeat, run by Richard Allen and Ivor Truman. Freakbeat focused on psychedelic music old and new, and (unusually for a small independent publication), featured full-colour covers; every page had wild patterns and photos printed underneath the text in clashing colours. The only way to read it was through either the red or blue lens of a pair of 3D glasses. Freakbeat became a record label – Delerium, home of Porcupine Tree’s first few albums – and then a sizeable music mail-order company, The Freak Emporium. Like all good labels, it was a hub where lots of paths crossed and contacts were made. Richard put me in contact with Greg Shaw (U.S. underground label/ zine/ A&R legend/ Zelig-like figure) and as a result I designed my first album cover proper for Beyond the Calico Wall, a killer compilation of forgotten ‘60s psychedelic bands. I got paid, too! I’m still happy with the cover, and it was a milestone for me in so many ways. Richard and I have continued to work together on projects since then.

8-combo

Freakbeat – Issue 5 cover (1988) [left] Various Artists – Beyond the Calico Wall album cover (1990) [right]

In 1997, I had a major lucky break when I began designing for the band Kula Shaker. My friend Jay Darlington was their keyboard player, and they’d unexpectedly hit the big time [in the wake of the Brit-pop phenomenon, big labels had started wildly throwing money at all sorts of  bands in the hope of bagging another Oasis or Blur] with their debut singles and album. I waved goodbye to office job life and finally started working freelance full time, almost exclusively for Kula Shaker. To say it was a huge change would be putting it mildly. It was a revelation. Working in collaboration with Rob O’Connor and team at the London studio Stylorouge – this was the first time I’d even seen a design studio – I designed several single covers and the cover to their second album, Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts.

Kula Shaker - Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts (1999)

Kula Shaker – Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts (1999)

There was always something new to do, be it tour programmes, t-shirts, calendars, even painting designs on guitars. It was the break I’d been waiting for and I felt like the luckiest guy alive. Funnily enough, Storm and I almost crossed paths at this point, as (unbeknownst to me) there had been discussions about Storm Studios doing the same album cover. I think Storm was more than a little pissed off that someone else had been given the job! Anyway, the band imploded (as bands have a tendency to) two years later and I wasn’t sure what would happen next.

Through various contacts I’d made, I began working on a (doomed) project with a web-design studio called Big Animal. And working with Big Animal was a certain Sam Brooks, who also happened to be working with Storm. I was amazed to meet someone who worked with Storm! It seemed inconceivable that such a job was even possible. Sam called months later telling me that Storm was urgently searching for an illustrator and asked if I was interested. I said “YES, of course!” and then wondered what the hell I was getting myself into. This was in early 2001.

The next day I turned up at the studio, nervous as a baby bunny. The place was nothing like the image I’d constructed in my mind – a huge uncluttered loft space, large windows, designers working at desks seated on ergonomic chairs, an air of Zen-calm – but instead the place I entered looked more like a mad old lady’s flat, with a few old wooden school chairs, a computer in the corner and layer upon layer of drawings, notes, lists and utility bills pinned and taped to the walls. I cautiously tried to say “hello” to Storm but he was on the phone and seemed very busy. Someone briefed me on what was needed, and I started drawing. Storm stuck his head around the door maybe once to see if I’d finished yet, and that was it!

I don’t think we spoke until the afternoon. Storm didn’t even look at my portfolio. In fact, he seemed actively disinterested in anything I’d done previous to that day, his only concern being the job at hand. He seemed sort of happy with the drawings I made (for Israeli band Ethnix) and asked me to come back again the next day. This continued on and off for some weeks and by 2002 I was working there every day.

In the end Storm never saw my portfolio, and never showed a grain of  interest in any qualifications I had or didn’t have, which was fine by me. He was permanently focused on what was needed right now and he pretty much continued in that fashion until he died. Never look back.

OLM: What’s your process for designing an album cover?

DA: Before I drown in my own ego from talking about myself too much, I should introduce our studio. All these images are very much the product of teamwork, you know?! Peter Curzon and Rupert Truman have been with the studio twice as long as I have. Peter designs images and creates most of the graphics, fonts, layouts and so on; he was already working as a cover designer before he met Storm. Rupert is in charge of photography, and is perhaps the photographer who’s worked with Storm the most throughout his career; he’s very tenacious! He also has a degree in Geology. Lee Baker joined the studio around the same time as I did, and handles any post-production or photo-montage duties, as well as graphics and layout. He has three hulking sons who all play in bands. Laura Truman has been with us for five years, or so, and she makes sure our finances and paperwork is all glued together properly. Laura is blessed with a logical mind. We also employ the services of Jerry Sweet (design), Charlotte Barnes (production) and Silvia Ruga (design) when we can afford ’em!

Rough and final version of Biffy Clyro - Only Revolutions (2009)

Rough and final version of Biffy Clyro – Only Revolutions (2009)

The process begins when a band or management/label contacts us. If we’re mutually interested in working together, then they usually get the music to us in some way, even if it’s just in demo form. We ask for lyrics, too. Often the bands have to type out the lyrics for the first time ever at this point, which is interesting for them, too. Labels have become a little more, shall we say, “paranoid”, about new music leaking out, but most of them still trust us with it. We listen to the music over and over and over and trawl through the lyrics, making notes. Then we ask the musicians detailed questions about the meanings and themes in the songs, their personal history and where they buy their socks. We might tell them what we think the songs “mean”, too, and hopefully we get a good dialogue going. Contact between us and actual band is so important, as it helps them to trust us more and means we can find out a bit more about what makes them tick.

TheAnswer-NewHorizon-rough-final-2013

Rough and final version of The Answer – New Horizon (2013)

At this point we start having ideas. Sometimes they come easy, sometimes it’s tough, but we bounce these back and forth and start making little sketches. With a rough sketch you can see whether an idea will work or not, and we make much more exact and refined sketches of the ideas that really chime. The drawings are rough but exact in terms of general proportions. At the end of this process we usually have between six and 12 ideas which we show to the band. The band has a good old think about it for a couple of days while we pace up and down in the studio [there’s a worn section of carpet because of this] with crossed fingers, biting our collective fingernails. Have you ever tried biting your nails with crossed fingers? Exactly.

TheDiscoBiscuits-PlanetAnthem-rough-final-2010

Rough and final version of The Disco Biscuits – Planet Anthem (2010)

If  they choose an idea, we all shout “Hooray!” and set about planning the shoot, making sure we can do it within the given budget. At the rough design stage we don’t bother to figure out how the image can be shot; it would be too much work to do that for each design. We trust that we’ll be able to do it somehow, and mostly the universe is kind to us. Organizing a shoot takes a lot of planning: finding a location, choosing models, paying someone to build props, checking the weather. As much as possible, we try and shoot the image “for real”, so if the idea involves a giant golden nose emerging from a beach (for instance) then we’ll build a model of a giant golden nose. It’s always a challenge, physically and mentally, especially if the budget’s a bit skimpy.

ThePlea-DreamersStadium-rough-final-2012

Rough and final version of The Plea – Dreamers Stadium (2012)

Once the cover is successfully shot, we collapse exhausted, laughing hysterically and then get up again and begin the final phase, package design. The look and design of the package really follows on from the cover image, so we never know what we’re going to do until the cover’s almost completed. The trick is to design something that flows from the cover and gives the feel of a whole and complete object. It’s still CDs we’re working on most of the time, but more and more it’s vinyl, too, and that’s very satisfying to hold in your hands a couple of months later. I love it…it feels like you’ve really made something. By the time we’ve finished and it’s all approved, it’s a great relief, but we’ve normally already begun work on a couple of other projects so there’s no time to draw breath really!

Mars Volta - Frances The Mute - Rough Design And Finished Cover (2005)

Mars Volta – Frances The Mute – Rough Design And Finished Cover (2005)

OLM: What tools do you use for designing album covers? Are you mostly organic [brushes, paints, other] or digital [software]?

DA: Well, it depends on the job, really, but I can tell you the most important. The absolutely most essential piece of equipment, the tool that’s there at the genesis of every cover we do… is pen and paper. It’s where it all starts. Lord knows how many designs would’ve been lost, would never have come to be if one of us hadn’t been carrying a pen. So often I would get a call from Storm: “Hello. Where are you? Have you got a pencil? Write this down immediately!” and three months later, that word or scribble would become a finished album cover. Apart from that, though, I use ink pens, water colour paints and coloured pencils to create our rough designs.

The studio uses Photoshop when required (as little as we can, though) and InDesign or Quark for layout. Nothing special or supernatural! I’d still say that we work in quite an organic way. Even with digital tools, it feels organic, anyway. The photo shoots themselves can involve models freezing their arses off, bad weather, large sculptures being blown over by wind, stray dogs, nosey onlookers, sunburn, trained geese, body paint and on at least one occasion I recall the Fire Brigade turning up. Feels pretty organic to me! Our photographer, Rupert, shoots mostly digital now, but that’s a fairly recent development. We hung onto film for as long as we could, but it became increasingly too expensive to deal with…a shame. Rupert shoots with either a Hasselblad (with a Phase One P45 digital back) or a Nikon D800.

OLM: How does designing an album cover differ from other forms of artwork? In what ways are they similar?

DA: Well, I think all designing is inherently similar in that one starts off with nothing and ends up with something. I’m sure a chair designer, a fairground ride painter or a Mexican muralist feel the same panic when a project starts! I hope they do, anyway…or is it just me? It’s different to book covers because book covers tend to change according to which market they’re being sold in, and all subsequent printings might get new cover designs. The breadth of styles and ideas that have been used on album covers to date is astonishing. Almost everything has been tried at least once. If you design ads for cars then you almost always have to feature the car in the artwork; not so with an album cover. I think with an album cover you can pretty much do what you want if you can get away with it. Maybe that’s the difference. You needn’t even feature the band name or title, as several million-selling Pink Floyd albums have successfully proved.

OLM: What does a typical day look like for you?

DA: Today feels quite typical, so I’ll tell you about what I’ve done today. I got up early, took the train across the city and spent 30 minutes at the dentist. No drilling, though, what a relief. Then I walked a couple of miles to my office/studio, which is really just a very messy table in the corner of a room. Then I checked emails.  Yesterday we emailed 10 rough designs to a new client, so I was eager to read any response. Always a nerve-wracking moment, as you never know what the verdict will be! In this case, the response was a little quiet but I think, fingers crossed, it’ll be ok. I’m based in Berlin but our main studio is in London, so there are usually a lot of emails back and forth between us, too. Sometimes emails eat up too much of the day when we could be doing something constructive…like designing! Other work I was involved with today included designs for two book covers, one a theatrical autobiography and the other about reproductive psychology. And why not? There’s a variety of things to think about on most working days; hopefully it never gets too tangled. Finally, we discussed preparations for a large London exhibition scheduled for late October. It’ll be a celebration of Storm’s life and work, and one of the biggest shows we’ve done yet. Work usually winds up around seven or eight in the evening, and maybe starts again in a last gasp of emails just before midnight. Working with different people around the globe means responses and instructions come in at the weird times of day, keeps you on your toes. A pretty typical day.

OLM: What is your favorite part of designing album covers? How about your least favorite part?

DA: The best part is when a client loves the ideas, and feels that we’ve absolutely nailed the feeling in their music with our image. I think that’s the best you can hope for. It’s good to be trusted and to know that you’ve come up with the goods.

The worst part is the opposite of that…rejection. Sometimes rejection comes in the early stages if they just don’t like any of our rough ideas. It’s much worse further down the line, however, when we’ve designed and shot the cover, completed the whole package, and then it gets rejected. I can only remember that happening once, but it was very disheartening and miserable.

Sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper at the beginning of a job contains the joy and terror in equal amounts. Great, it’s another job! A fresh, new project! Exciting! BUT will we come up with something good? Can we still cut the mustard? What is this music all about? Who am I? Panic!

OLM: Do bands have an idea of what they want an album cover to look like, do they leave that completely up to the artist, or perhaps a mix of both?

DA: Mostly bands trust us to come up with something. If they have their own very fixed ideas, we very politely try to explain that what we do best is think things up ourselves and that maybe they should stick to the music side of things, ha ha! Sometimes there’s room for compromise, of course. When we did Absolution for Muse, they had a clear idea of how the inside of the booklet should be, and we agreed that it might be cool. When we did Splinter for The Offspring, we shot several images, including one that was the singer’s idea. Guess which one ended up on the front? But, it’s great to be trusted to create an image ourselves, to accompany the music that the band have been slaving over for months or even years, and that’s what usually happens.

Muse - Absolution (2003)

Muse – Absolution (2003)

OLM: How important is it for you to like the artist/band that you’re designing an album cover for (personally and musically)?

DA: I was very principled about this years ago. My rule was that I had to like the music or I wouldn’t work with it. But when I told Storm about this, he got angry and told me what an idiot I was being! Now I also mock my former self and agree with Storm. Each job is an opportunity to create a new picture. It’s great if the music ends up in our top ten, but also ok if it doesn’t. I can almost always find something in the music or lyrics that appeals to me, that I can latch onto, then it’s ok. We’re a bunch of tarts that’ll design for anyone and everyone! Nazis would probably be declined, though.

OLM: Do bands come to you when they want an album cover designed, do you seek that work, or perhaps a mix of both?

DA: We’re always approached, though sometimes we try to wrangle our way in there. We’re lucky that the studio has a long and notorious history. It’s rare for a designer or studio to work in the field of music graphics for such a long time. A lot of designers “get over it” and move on. I guess the record stores of the world are our portfolio in a way, so many bands come to us because they like covers we did for other bands.

OLM: What band(s) would you like to design an album cover for? How do you plan on making that happen?

DA: Personally, I would really like to design for Scott Walker, Bob Dylan, Caetano Veloso (from Brazil), Franco Battiato (from Italy) and indeed for The Beatles. We were commissioned to design something for Dylan a few years back, but our ideas didn’t make it past the management, or that’s what I assume happened. Still, Dylan’s known for his music and not his great covers. As for The Beatles, well, we’d need a time machine and that would really mess up the space-time-album-cover-history continuum… imagine that! If Walker, Veloso or Battiato are reading this, please give us a call and we’ll come to an arrangement.

But you know, each new job is exciting, and I’ve heard so much surprising, beautiful and exciting new music because of it. You never know what’s around the corner in this game.

OLM: What makes an album cover great….or even iconic?

DA: What does “iconic” mean? People seem to use that word a lot at the moment. Product managers at labels tell us they want something “iconic”, like we have a magic iconic button which we can press at will. Ha ha, I wish! I think mostly it’s just fancy shorthand for: a) famous, b) simple, c) financially successful, d) everyone thinks it’s iconic because a journalist tells them it is.

A more positive interpretation for me though, would be “timeless” and “memorable”. By not trying hard to adapt to current trends and fads, we hope our designs have a timeless quality, and it was always a conscious aim of Storm’s to make people look twice (at least) at a cover, to somehow hook it into their minds. Maybe that’s iconic. A lot of covers that tick these boxes are more famous than the music they’re for. In other words, I can mentally picture Roxy Music’s Country Life, Vampire Weekend’s Contra and Bob Marley’s Exodus, but I’ve never really heard any of ’em! Perhaps that makes them iconic. Or are they just famous?

Roxy Music - Country Life

Roxy Music – Country Life

Vampire Weekend - Contra

Vampire Weekend – Contra

Bob Marley - Exodus

Bob Marley – Exodus

OLM: What are some of your favorite album covers (iconic or not)?

DA: This is a nightmare question, but also a lovely one.

The list might be different if you asked me yesterday or tomorrow, but today I think we’ll go for:

The Outsiders – CQ – Mysterious geometrical minimalism by Dutch artist Anto Van Der Gulik.

Outsiders - CQ

Outsiders – CQ

The Beatles – Revolver – A black and white cover for a technicolour album.

The Beatles - Revolver

The Beatles – Revolver

Bob Hund – Omslag Martin Kahn – The designer’s own passport photo!

Bob Hund - Omslag Martin Kahn

Bob Hund – Omslag Martin Kahn

Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends – So normal it’s utterly weird, and slightly menacing.

Simon and Garfunkel - Bookends

Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends

The Mandrake Memorial – Puzzle – MC Escher and Milton Glaser, what a team!

Mandrake Memorial - Puzzle

Mandrake Memorial – Puzzle

XTC – Go2Hipgnosis at their most sarcastic.

XTC - Go2 (1978)

XTC – Go2 (1978)

The Red Crayola – Parable of Arable Land – Psychedelic mayhem.

The Red Crayola - Parable of Arable Land

The Red Crayola – Parable of Arable Land

David Axelrod – Song of Innocence – Mandala magnificence by designer Robert Lockart.

David Axelrod - Song of Innocence

David Axelrod – Song of Innocence

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – Probably Hipgnosis’ crowning achievement.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here [Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here [Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

OLM: Are there any album covers you wished you designed?

DA: I tend to develop a positive relationship with the cover if I like the music, so I wouldn’t change any of the following, but it would have been nice to design:

The Beatles – Revolver

The Beatles - Revolver

The Beatles – Revolver

MGMT – Congratulations

MGMT - Congratulations

MGMT – Congratulations

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

Broadcast – HaHa Sound

Broadcast - HaHa Sound

Broadcast – HaHa Sound

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

Scott Walker - Bish Bosch

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

OLM: It seems like iconic albums have iconic album covers. Can you share some examples of iconic albums with less-than-stellar album covers and vice-versa?

DA: Gotta be careful here. I don’t want to be nasty to fellow cover designers; it’s a jungle out there and we’re all trying to earn a living. Besides, hell hath no fury like a cover-designer scorned! But since you ask… well-respected albums with covers I find, shall we say “unimaginative” would include:

Fleetwood Mac – Rumours – Huh? I don’t get it. The dangling balls are funny though.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Radiohead – OK Computer – I dunno, it feels lazy.

Radiohead - OK Computer

Radiohead – OK Computer

The Beatles – 1 compilation – Disappointingly drab.

Beatles - 1

Beatles – 1

Michael Jackson – Thriller – The music is pop-art-disco-soul, but the cover looks like a men’s wear ad.

Michael Jackson - Thriller

Michael Jackson – Thriller

Coldplay – all of them except the latest one [Mylo Xyloto] – I find their covers very empty.

Coldplay - Parachutes

Coldplay – Parachutes

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds – It’s a nice band shot with some llamas, but tells me nothing about the music.

Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black – Emotional music, but unemotional cover shot.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black

And here are some covers I think are great, but remain uninterested in the music, or I’ve not actually heard it yet:

Simple Minds – Life in a Day

Simple Minds - Life in a Day

Simple Minds – Life in a Day

Led Zeppelin – IV

Led Zeppelin - IV

Led Zeppelin – IV

Kiss – Rock And Roll Over

KISS - Rock and Roll Over

KISS – Rock and Roll Over

Thom Yorke – The Eraser

Thom Yorke - The Eraser

Thom Yorke – The Eraser

Menomena – Friend and Foe

Menomena - Friend and Foe

Menomena – Friend and Foe

Michael Jackson – Dangerous

Michael Jackson - Dangerous

Michael Jackson – Dangerous

Architecture in Helsinki – Places Like This

Architecture in Helsinki - Places Like This

Architecture in Helsinki – Places Like This

OLM: What are your thoughts on risqué album covers (and censorship)?

DA: It’s such a wide market and the range of tastes involved in cover design is huge, so obviously clashes happen occasionally. We’ve had problems recently because an image we shot featured a (very small) knife, and a big supermarket chain threatened not to stock it for that very reason. A few years ago we did a gallery show in Chicago and they refused to display our print of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy because it featured naked children. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can usually offend some of them quite easily! I think people tend to worry about album covers and about popular music in general because of its associations with youth, and the perceived danger of irreversible corruption.

Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy (1973)

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)

The weirdest things get censored. I remember being in the United States in 2002 and seeing that Andrew W.K. CD [I Get Wet] with a big black band of shrink wrap across most of the front cover so you couldn’t see his bleeding nose. I enjoyed the ridiculousness of that. I think censorship has always been a greater issue for major labels who want things to proceed smoothly in terms of selling. Indie labels have gotten away with all sorts of odd things that would be heavily controversial if the big guys released them. But you know, everyone can see whatever repulsive images they want very easily these days, so I don’t think risqué covers are much of an issue any more. It’s so rarely an issue for us, anyway. Are you going to censor this interview or should I be more risqué? (Pardon my French).

Andrew WK - I Get Wet

Andrew WK – I Get Wet

OLM: Who are some of your favorite artists (album cover designers or otherwise)?

DA: Oh dear, I’ll try and keep the list short with only the essentials!

Robert Crumb – I learned a lot him. His pen work always makes me happy.

Robert Lockart – Rather unsung album cover designer. Designed Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and many others. I would love to know more about him.

Hans Arnold – Swedish horror illustrator, incredibly prolific.

Brad Holland – American illustrator, incredible pen work.

Tove Jansson – Finnish creator of The Moomins. Her drawings are perfect.

Jean Michel Folon – Belgian designer and illustrator. Deceptively simple, symbolic stuff.

Jack Kirby – Marvel Comics artist extraordinaire. His work on Thor smashed my childhood brain like a flying hammer.

OLM: Did you ever have the “rock star” dream? Would you like to be a musician and have other people designing your album covers?

DA: I wouldn’t dream of doing my own covers, that’s for sure! I don’t have a tattoo, but the same rule would apply there, too. It would definitely have to be someone else’s art. I think you’ve gotta be able to say “bye bye” to your art once you’ve finished it, and then move on, not have it attached to you for eternity. I would love to record an album, oh yes, and I almost did once, but I fear any talent I have is used up elsewhere!

OLM: Can the public purchase your art?

DA: Firstly, I’d like to announce that we are about to publish a big new book, The Gathering Storm. Storm worked hard on it for the last few months of his life, and managed to see the copies from the printers just before he died. The Gathering Storm is an anthology of Storm’s “Greatest Hits” so to speak, spanning his entire career from 1968 to 2013. It’s absolutely full of images, as well as great running commentary by Storm himself. Have a look HERE for more information. We also produce limited fine-art prints (silk screen and giclée) of our favourite images. Hop on over to the Storm Studios website and have a nose around. We also regularly do exhibitions of our prints in the UK and around the world, so people can also buy them at those events, too.

OLM: Let’s talk about Storm a little bit. What do you think will be his lasting impression(s)/legacy?

DA: I think Storm might mostly be remembered for the designs involving the orchestration of a crazy spectacle like the multitude of beds on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason or the flying pig from Animals. Dark Side of the Moon has up to now been the first image that people reach for when talking about his designs. I think he sometimes found that frustrating because it was one of the simplest covers Hipgnosis designed; no photo shoot, nothing on fire, no wild location. Just a diagram really.

Pink Floyd - Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987) [Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd – Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987)
[Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd - Animals (1977) [Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd – Animals (1977)
[Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon 1973) [Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon 1973)
[Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Could be that a large part of Storm’s legacy will be his influence. I often see things in big money ad campaigns that look very much  influenced by Storm’s ideas or style, and parts of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony certainly showed, some, uh, “influence”! Hipgnosis certainly changed the way album covers were perceived, really pushed at the boundaries, moving as far away from the usual music industry commercial/selling pressures as possible, and crediting the average music fan with some intelligence. Hipgnosis certainly weren’t content to follow the crowd and because of their daring, combative, weird, perfectionist and often tongue-in-cheek stance they opened up possibilities for many others who followed. Hipgnosis of course weren’t the only ones doing this, but I’d say they were very key. Atom Heart Mother went to No.1 in the UK charts with no logo or text on the front…just a photo of a cow. An astounding feat and effortlessly cool.

Pink Floyd - Atom Heart Mother (1970) [Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970)
[Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd]

OLM: What are some of the most important things you learned from Storm?

DA: I learned a lot from Storm, but in a nutshell:

1)  An idea will always come.

2)  Always carry a pen in case the idea comes and you need to grab it. If you don’t grab it, it will fly off and may never be seen again.

3)  Don’t look back. The next job is the most exciting and could be your best ever work.

4)  Never include an idea you don’t like when you send roughs to a client, because nine times out of ten they will gravitate towards that one idea like a bolt of lightning!

5)  A restaurant will usually be happy to make you something that’s not actually on the menu.

OLM: What is the future of Storm Studios?

DA: Storm left the studio to Peter Curzon, Rupert Truman and myself and it was his wish that we continue the work. The covers we’ve created over the years have always been the result of collaboration between us all and we actually haven’t stopped since Storm left us. Indeed we did a photo shoot the day after he died – he would have given us the thumbs up, I’ve no doubt of that. In the time since Storm passed we have been hard at work designing covers for Biffy Clyro, The Answer, Korda Marshall and Leisure Cruise among others. It’s very, very strange doing it without Storm, but I like to think he left a well-trained studio in his wake. He’d laugh if he heard me saying that, of course, and tell me I was obviously deluded. God I miss him. We all do. His departure is very painful.

47-StormDan-combo

Dan Abbott (L) and Storm Thorgerson (R)

OLM: Is there anything else you would like to add about Storm? Any stories to share?

DA: If it weren’t for Storm Thorgerson, the last few years of my life would have been very different. Without Storm it’s unlikely that I would have painted windows on the bellies of pregnant women, witnessed 300 people seated in a theatre holding cabbages in front of their faces, sat in a bed on an airstrip while 100 large red gym balls bounced towards me, ran up and down the steps of a giant 500 year old well in India (repeatedly, in 45 degree heat until I thought I would pass out), stood on a freezing English beach in December holding a giant model of a carrot, worked professionally with snakes, sheep, geese, Belgian hares, dogs and zebras, stood on a beach in South Africa wrapping beautiful models head to toe in brown paper, dressed up as a housewife in front of a giant washing line, or approached a total stranger in a restaurant to ask him if we could photograph his unusually large ears. For all these things and countless others, I have Storm to thank. Thank you Storm!

49 LectureAudience-Cabbages(2007)-OneLouder

OLM: What are some of your hobbies? What do you like to do when not working?

DA: I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to music either on the radio (internet or old-fashioned radio!) or buying it. I still buy a lot of vinyl, old and new, and the floor of our flat is becoming somewhat misshapen under the strain. Looking at all the stuff scattered around the room, I can tell you that the five things I’m listening to right now are:

Arnaud Fleurent Didier – La Reproduction – Great new French songwriter, cinematic pop.

Bülent Ortaçgil – Benimle Oynar Mısın – Stunningly beautiful Turkish folk rock album from 1974.

John Carpenter – The Fog soundtrack – Can’t listen too long before I get scared and take it off again.

Francois De Roubaix – Les Plus Belles Musiques De FilmsVol.1 – Overlooked genius French film soundtrack composer.

Finn Zetterholm & Marie Selander – Lillfar och Lillmor – Utterly bonkers Swedish ‘70s childrens’ songs.

OLM: The desert island question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?

DA: I’m going to be boring and say The Beatles and Dylan for a start. I haven’t even heard all of Dylan’s albums, but I’m certain even the really ropey ones have hidden depths. Next would be Ennio Morricone; especially good because he’s written and recorded literally hundreds of soundtracks of insanely varied music. Then I’d go for bluegrass singer-songwriter John Hartford (he wrote ‘Gentle On My Mind’) because his music’s full of humour, soul, endless tumbling words and I never get bored with it. And lastly Bach, because I’d at last have the time and space to appreciate and understand his compositions.

Having said all that, I’m not sure how I’d cope with never hearing James Brown, The Sex Pistols, Nat King Cole or indeed Van Der Graaf Generator ever again!

OLM: Who are your guilty listening pleasures?

DA: I am a guilt-free listener! My know-it-all hipster music nerd friends, though, often look a little askance at me when I tell them that the hits of Lionel Richie sometimes bring me great happiness. In addition, I’m more and more convinced that a lot of Abba’s records are experimental pop masterpieces. Plus, they just managed to hide the avant-garde aspects under killer melodies and hooks. I think it’s healthy to make plenty of room for all kinds of music in your head: The Butthole Surfers and Neil Diamond sitting side-by-side. Life’s too short to have small ears. I stop at The Smiths, though. Begone Morrissey!

OLM: How can people find out more information about you and everything you’ve done (and are doing)?

DA: We’re currently building a new website for Storm Studios, but the old one’s still up at HERE where you can sign up for our highly educational newsletter thing. We hang around on Facebook, too.

I run a blog where I try to post new art every single day of the year.

OLM: Last question. Is the album cover dead?

DA: Oh no, sonny, not at all. There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet!

Additional covers by Storm Studios:

10CC - Tenology - Box Set (2012)

10CC – Tenology – Box Set (2012)

Yumi Matsutoya - Setsugekka (2003)

Yumi Matsutoya – Setsugekka (2003)

Thornley - Tiny Pictures (2009)

Thornley – Tiny Pictures (2009)

The Amplifetes - Where Is The Light (2013)

The Amplifetes – Where Is The Light (2013)

Steve Miller Band - Big Discs (2010)

Steve Miller Band – Big Discs (2010)

Slow Earth - Latitude & 023 (2013)

Slow Earth – Latitude & 023 (2013)

Muse - Uprising (2009)

Muse – Uprising (2009)

Greg Friedman - Can't Talk Now (2013)

Greg Friedman – Can’t Talk Now (2013)

Audioslave 2002)

Audioslave – Audioslave (2002)

Cranberries - Wake Up And Smell The Coffee (2001)

Cranberries – Wake Up And Smell The Coffee (2001)

Pink Floyd images © Pink Floyd Music/Pink Floyd (1987) Ltd

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