rockpaperink

November 25, 2012

Undercover

A Conversation with Steven R Gilmore

Author: Timothy O'Donnell

Topics: Branding Identity, Packaging, Profiles, Type

Industrial music, made popular in the 80s and 90s by labels such as WaxTrax! and Nettwerk, is an abrasive collision of rock and electronic music—Black Sabbath as played by Kraftwerk. Skinny Puppy, one of the genre's most influential bands, blend movie samples, rhythms that alternately pound and jitter, and guttural vocals with a stage show indebted equally to performance art and horror films. Steven R Gilmore's work with the band, spanning 20+ years, manages to suggest partial narratives for the band's disorienting sonic collages.

Though it's not my favorite of his sleeves for the band (that honor goes to his masterful VIVIsectVI, more later), Rabies is a great example of Gilmore's ability to reflect a very abstract music. The juxtaposition of Manson and Hitler with the Warner Bros "That's all, folks!" background is a jarring but appropriate interpretation of songs that skitter between dance and dirge, horror and humor.

Rabies (1989) (detail)

Steven was kind enough to share his thoughts on his long collaboration with the band, and discuss the creation of two recent sleeves with me.

You've been working with Skinny Puppy since 1984—do you approach projects with them differently than you do for new clients? Are you keenly aware of the large body of past work you've created for them?

SG: My main approach to Skinny Puppy has always been to try and create something graphically and emotionally different for each release. Having said that, I guess it does make me aware of the body of work I have created for them over the years. That's something I've never really thought of before.

Two early Gilmore sleeves for Skinny Puppy — Remission (1984) and Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate (1987)

I say you've been working with them since 1984, but actually there was a brief period in the 90s where you didn't work together. Without wanting to dredge up too much past history, what happened? Was the band looking for a new vision, or was it more of a personal issue?

SG: I can't speak for the band but I think we were all going through growing pains at the time, and everyone in our small circle thought we needed a change. After working with Nettwerk Records (Skinny Puppy's label at the time) for several years, I had a falling out with them in 1990. My disdain for Nettwerk was growing exponentially from what I perceived as a lack of respect for the work I was doing, so I felt I needed to move on before I did something I would regret. Unfortunately, my break with Nettwerk also affected my relationship with Skinny Puppy. For unrelated reasons, Nivek Ogre, Cevin Key, and I all ended up living here in Los Angeles, and in 1995, we started working together again when Skinny Puppy signed with Rick Rubin's label, American Recordings.

Can you speak about your creative process behind your recent "Handover" and "Live: Bootlegged, Broke and In Solvent Seas" sleeves?

SG: For a number of years I had the idea of an entity of hands that would mimic the branches and roots of a tree, so when "Handover" came along, the entity idea fit in perfectly with the forest motif I had already established with the graphics for the 2009, "In Solvent See" tour.

I knew the hand motif was going to take numerous hours to composite together so it wasn't until I met Mariette, who has beautiful hands, that I was sure I wanted to try tackling it. We ended up doing three separate photo-shoots until I finally had enough hand images to work with.

As I was working on the hand motif, my original ideas began to change. Instead of being surrounded by the lush greens of a forest that figured predominantly in the "In Solvent See" tour graphics, it started taking on a darker tone. I began thinking about the oppressively cold winters in Calgary, Alberta, where Ogre (Skinny Puppy's lead singer) and I grew up. I wanted the design to portray that cold, isolated, and rather sinister undercurrent I felt as a child.

The Live: Bootlegged, Broke and In Solvent Seas design is a continuation of the graphics from the 2010 tour, which is appropriate considering it's a live recording of the Eastern European leg of that tour. Unlike the somewhat unforgiving atmosphere of Handover, I wanted these graphics to portray a more positive energy. And like "Handover" this design was also based on a Canadian city, this time it was where Cevin Key, Nivek Ogre, and I first met—Vancouver, British Columbia. Being that we have known each other for over 30 years, I felt it was important that we address our roots and reflect on how lucky we are to be working together for so long. For this design I wanted something simple but striking. The symbol figured predominantly on the front cover is a metaphor for light (the circle) and a tree (the triangle). It is an abstraction of the image that featured heavily in the original touring merchandise and on the rear of the sleeve. An illuminated ray of light (hope) at the end of a dark forest path.

Although I don't normally mix my fine art with my commercial graphics, the inside of the sleeve features one of my personal works, "Alone IV" which is the fourth in a series of five digital prints for an upcoming exhibition. Each large scale piece will be printed at 72 x 72 inches. Both these sleeves were also an exercise in self restraint: I limited myself to using only one font, Times New Roman for Handover, and Futura for Live: Bootlegged, Broke and In Solvent Seas.

In an interview with Spinner.com, Ogre was quoted as saying, "As musicians, we have been dealing with a business that is eroded to such a degree that you can't really make a living off of it. How do I exist in this world? Hawking T-shirts? All I wanted to be was a musician, and now I've started to become a bill collector." Do you feel similarly about how the changes in the music industry have affected you as a designer?

SG: Because of the economy, designer's roles have changed all across the board in recent years, but I think one of the biggest negative impacts has been within in the music industry. Besides the budgets for sleeve designs steadily decreasing, the music industry is still undergoing a major transition into the digital domain. There have always been rather pedestrian album sleeve designs out there, but sadly digital downloading has taken mediocrity to a new level. What is seemingly important now is that the front cover information can be deciphered quickly at 300 x 300 pixels.

But all is not lost for consumers who would like to see artwork for their favorite artists. Vinyl has seen a huge resurgence lately, and besides the digital booklets that iTunes has included with albums for a number of years, they are now featuring much larger embedded cover art. When all is said and done, it really is a shame that most music consumers will never experience the sheer tactile joy of holding an album package in their hands, or even a CD for that matter.

Lastly, what is your favorite work with the band? Why?

SG: My personal favorite of all the sleeves I have done for Skinny Puppy is still VIVIsectVI, which I did in 1988.

Yes! This is in my top five favorite sleeves...

SG: From the x-ray collage on the front cover (which unintentionally looks very similar to the collage I just did for Handover), the gatefold sleeve, the custom vinyl labels (a rarity for Nettwerk in those days), to the photograph of the band on the inside by Kevin Westenberg, everything just fell together so flawlessly. It will always be something I'm very proud of.


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