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Chris Bigg: I Always See Music in Colors

Chris Bigg: I Always See Music in Colors

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Long considered to be one of the most innovative areas of graphic design, record sleeve art has a history of introducing complex imagery to the mass market. Popular music s, as it is known, is a form of youth culture closely connected to visual culture. Record sleeves have never been only a packaging. In a way, they are objects that reflect the desires of the audiences in a fundamental way.

Graphic designer Chris Bigg has spent three decades creating beautiful and engaging work, starting with 4AD label, creating artwork for likes of Cocteau Twins, Belly, The Wolfgang Press, among many, and from a decade ago with British avant-songsmith David Sylvian, helping to shape the visual aesthetics of his SamadhiSound label.

All About Jazz: Where is the intersection that art and music meet for you?

Chris Bigg: It's in a number of areas, the lyrics, texture and shape of the sounds. I always see music in colors, so the palette used is important, and finally, the art of typography. You can create such varied messages and moods with font choice alone.

AAJ: How has music and music culture influenced your work?

CB: Since I was a young child music has always been an important part of my life. My parents would often play records at the weekend, and I remember enjoying how these changed the mood in the house, the atmosphere shifted—Santana, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson, Simon & Garfunkel. At 14, my father upgraded his record player and I was first in line for the old one. I had a record player in my room to play my own records on—T Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music and a little later Punk rock; it was the DIY ethic I loved. The new wave period, Magazine, Joy Division, Wire, The Cure, The Birthday Party, all bands I would go and see in my hometown in Brighton, small pubs and venues, up close. It was at this point, I must have been 17-18, I was never very academic at school, so I decided Art, Music, or a bit of both was what I wanted to get involved in.

AAJ: What introduced you to graphic design?

CB: As I mentioned previously school was a real struggle for me, but my art teacher was an inspiring character and he showed great enthusiasm for my drawing skills and suggested I could go to Art College to study many aspects of art and design. My parents were also very enthusiastic as they could see the pleasure it brought me, compared to maths. I did a one-year foundation course which exposed you to all aspects of art and design, the idea being you then focused on one area for your three-year design course. But it was the lessons in calligraphy, typography and photography that I felt the most passion for.

AAJ: How did you get into album cover designing?

CB: During my final year at university studying graphic design and photography I had to write a 5,000 word dissertation and I wanted to write and research a subject that had not been written about, so my title was "Post punk album cover design." I was very interested in the label 4AD, especially the art of Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Grierson. They had only designed three or four sleeves at this point, but there was something magical about the work and the music. I had also written to Peter Seville, Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garratte and Neville Brody but Vaughan was the only one who replied. So we set up an interview, I met Ivo [Watts-Russell ] on the same day.

I did not know it at the time, but that was the start of a friendship and working relationship that would last almost 25 years. We still keep in touch even though he moved away from the music business in 1998. He is an amazing character. He gave me and Vaughan all the space to do what we do best. I worked as Vaughan's assistant for four years and as we progressed and the workload increased I found myself working independently on projects we then employed other assistants.

AAJ: Please explain how you work with musicians to create album art. Of course, this likely varies greatly between projects. But in general, what direction do you seek from an artist? And what is the ideal scenario for you in this regard?

CB: I always think of the job as visualizing the sound with image and typography. I listen to the lyrics, if possible experience the live performance, the pub for a few drinks to discuss moods, likes and dislikes. I like musicians that are constructive with their critic. On occasions, management and record labels bosses also have an opinion but I tend to send a variety of images that cover the mood I feel is correct, a mood board if you like.

AAJ: How does a typical image come together, from beginning to end?

CB: It varies depending on what the project requires. I have used existing images, or you may be in a position to art direct a new set of images. On some occasions a band/musician might bring an image to the table as a starting point. This might end up as the final piece or works as inspiration for a fresh piece of work. There is always a lot of dialogue between myself and the client. As the journey continues, I always enjoy the moment when the client says, "yes" and you have their confidence. It's at that stage I like to push the design further to see how much further you can go.

AAJ: Do you sometimes feel as if you act as a vessel for the client?

CB: I think you are always a vessel for the client. Your job is to visualize the sound but, of course, client input does vary. I think some of my more successful projects have involved a higher level of collaboration. I don't have much time for the marketing person. Over the years there have been a number of rather boring, backward decisions made by such people.

Jan Bang / Erik Honoré AAJ: How does an album cover get chosen and who makes the final decision?

CB: Again, it's a decision that all parties have to agree too, but ultimately the artist/client and I have the final say.

AAJ: How does your work differ when working for clients to when you're focusing on self-initiated projects?

CB: I think a lot of my work is very personal, there is no difference between my personal and paid work. I work hard to develop my typography, skills to keep my own self- initiated typographic experiments available for any number of projects, mark-making and taking photographs are a very important part of my routine; it has to be done.

AAJ: How do you see the album cover in today's digital world? Do you believe the evolution of digital music downloads is substantially impacting the perceived importance of album artwork?

CB: Yes, of course the digital download has played havoc with the importance of album artwork, but there must be a future between music and visuals they can never be separated.

AAJ: Do you see the decline of physical music formats as a loss, or as an opportunity for music and visuals to be brought together in new ways?

CB: I think it's sad that these formats are a thing of the past. The music business has changed so much since the arrival of the MP3/download. We are in the middle of a vinyl second wind, not sure how long this will last, and it's such a small part of sales. I like to think that music will always work hand in hand with image and typography. I can see a future in limited special editions, and of course the moving image area has possibilities as most new music is viewed on YouTube. I would like to see more experimental developments in the viewing of live music, be it venues, or stage design.

AAJ: Can you elaborate on the cover for Cocteau Twins Lullabies to Violaine (4AD, 2005)?

CB: That project was art directed by Vaughan, my roll was one of design assistant I like the limited edition version, printed on this wonderful matt paper, I do think Nigel Grierson's wonderful art is missed on this release.

AAJ: How did you meet David Sylvian and how did you first get involved with his record label, SamadhiSound?

CB: I first met David when Vaughan and Nigel Grierson were working on Secrets of the Beehive (Virgin, 1987) in 1987 and as v23 we worked on further projects up until 2000. I was having a rough time on a number of levels in 2003-4 and I was on the verge of giving up graphics. I had been working very hard with very little reward or appreciation and then out of the blue David emailed me. Blemish (2003) had been released on his new label, SamadhiSound. He and Yuka had plans to handle all the graphics / typography on further releases, but both were busy and were looking for someone to help out. I considered getting involved for about one second! It's been the most rewarding of all of my collaborations.

It's a dream project; his music never disappoints and we have a very gentle relationship. I just want to do my best on every occasion. It just gets better and better, he is a very generous man who is always willing to share his inspiration on any number of topics. If there was to be one thing that could improve our working relationship, well I wished we lived in the same country. It would be fabulous to spend some time together while working on various projects. We do meet when we can but it's a rare thing.

AAJ: Please talk about the way you work with Sylvian who is known for his involvement in the artwork direction on his own or other SamadhiSound releases.

CB: It's a very collaborative working relationship, David art directs all images, illustration, photographic elements and he has never disappointed me. Quite the opposite —he has a very broad taste in art, and always inspires me with his choice of images. He will send me the music and his image selection with a suggested front/back cover selection. Then I respond to this work typographically. I like to think SamadhiSound and David's solo releases have a feel of continuity, without us repeating ourselves. It has a typographic language that gives the label a subtle identity. Philip Marshall 's "Rebels in Control," who handles all the web aspects of the label , continues the story with his delicate edits of the format art.

AAJ: Can you elaborate on the new covers for Jan Bang and Erik Honoré's Uncommon Deities (SamadhiSound, 2012) and Greta Aagre and Erik Honoré's Year of the Bullet (SamadhiSound, 2012)?

CB: All of the projects that involve David Sylvian are rewarding and inspiring. David sent me artist Hannah Bertram's beautiful drawings made in dust. It was a pleasure working with such images. We made a limited edition that allowed us to explore Hannah's images even further by working with a special gold metallic that included the lyrics in both Norwegian and English. I particularly like the half size grey board "O" card that has blind embossed typography. Year of the Bullet, is a project by Greta Aagre and Erik Honoré. Erik was again such a joy. He gave me freedom to respond to the music. I had recently been looking at the photographic work of Luís Filipe Cunha, a wonderful inspiring portfolio. I presented Erik with a selection of various moods incorporating Luís images, a choice was made by return. Not all projects run that smoothly

AAJ: While you are in the process of creating your designs, what are some of the rules you always follow to maximize results?

CB: I always strive to surprise myself, keep it interesting. Of course, I have an approach, but I work hard at finding subtle new directions, and I really enjoy typographic detail and mark making.

AAJ: Of your book and album covers, posters, press ads, etc what are some of the personal highlights in your career?

CB: David Sylvian's Trophies 2 (Opium Arts, 1999) has a strange, but timeless mood. The limited edition of Manafon (SamadhiSound, 2010) is special. I really enjoy the typography and image relationship of both Jan Bang's ...and Poppies from Kandahar (SamadhiSound, 2009) and Akira Rabelais' release. When it comes to 4AD, the works for Belly, The Wolfgang Press, Gus Gus, Lush, Johann Johannsson, The Mountain Goats, Red House Painters and Atlas Sound are all projects I am proud of. Apart from 4AD, projects like Silent Sound, The Victoria and Albert Museum's Diaghilev, The Museum of London's Doctors Dissection and Resurrection Men On-U Sound, Eardrum, and Blacksand.

AAJ: As a lecturer at Southampton and Brighton Universities. what advice do you give to students trying to get into graphic design now?

CB: Experiment, experiment, experiment; you have three years. It's not a long time, look at the history of design and all aspects of the creative arts. Be inspired by art outside of graphic design. Don't be scared to make mistakes. I have learned that often the mistakes are the best part. Have the courage to let the accident in and, of course, you need to be experienced in all the recent software available, but I do try to get off the computer whenever possible. You have to take an idea to the computer. Too many students waste time blankly looking at a computer screen expecting ideas to mysteriously appear as if by magic.

AAJ: What encouragement or advice do you have for other artists who wish to explore a completely different side of their creativity but are afraid to do so for fear of criticism or being misunderstood?

CB: I would always encourage someone to experiment and explore other avenues, even if not successful there would be lessons learned that might inform new direction in their work.

AAJ: What projects have you worked recently and what are you working on at the moment?

CB: I am almost complete on 400-page book by David Sylvian with complete lyrics, poems and written essays. It's taken a year to get into this, but its well on the way and looking and feeling fantastic. I have also put the finishing touches to a project for Nico Muhly on the Bedroom Community label, and working with the photographer Luîs Filipe Cunha as I did on the recent Erik Honoré album. There are two new releases for SamadhiSound: Wandermüde (2012), by Stephan Mathieu and David Sylvian, and Amplified Gestures an expanded version of the film we made for the Manafon limited edition.

Selected Discography

Erik Honore and Greta Aagre, Year of the Bullet (Jazzland Recordings, 2012)
David Sylvian, Died in The Wool—Manafon Variations (SamadhiSound, 2011)
David Sylvian, Manafon (SamadhiSound, 2010)
Nine Horses, Snow Borne Sorrow (SamadhiSound, 2005)
David Sylvian, The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter (SamadhiSound, 2005)


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