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Chris Bigg: I Always See Music in Colors

Chris Bigg: I Always See Music in Colors
Nenad Georgievski By

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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.

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