LPWTF? -|- Canadian record cover art, uncovered

Feb 10

Ketamines + Felix Morel + C.m. Ruiz = The Surreal Lightness of Being Strange

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Ketamines: All the Colours of Your Heart | Eleven Eleven | So Hot | Stay Awake [2013/14] — Paul Lawton seems to be living out a daydream he might’ve had as a teenager. He’s been playing in bands for two decades, he runs a rad record label called Mammoth Cave Recording Co., and he’s become known for chucking well-spoken rocks at the machine that makes popular music. (When Lawton’s not moonlighting, his day gig is crafting words for a Toronto-based environmental firm, and he taught media and digital culture at the University of Lethbridge before moving east.) Lawton’s latest recording project with his longtime band Ketamines — a collectors’ series of four 7” releases whose standalone covers form one larger, truly magnificent collage image — is evidence that he’s also diving even deeper into his own past.

“As a kid, I was really obsessed with Wacky Packages,” explains Lawton. “If you never had Wacky Packages, you’d collect certain cards and put them together on the floor and make a bigger picture. And I was kinda OCD about it as a kid, and I would just hustle any way I could to try to raise money to buy more Wacky Packages, because otherwise I would have an incomplete picture. But at that point there were no card shops, no Internet, so you had to just keep buying packs in order to complete the collage. So this is an idea that I’ve wanted to do for years.”

Lawton had considered producing a “cassingles club” a few years ago with another band called Myelin Sheaths, in which a run of cassette releases would assemble into one crazy-ass puzzled-together image created by his go-to cover artist (more on that creative partnership a little later). But while this four-part Ketamines release (for the sake of brevity: 4x7”) had been stewing on Lawton’s back burner for some time, it also turned into an opportunity to find new and similarly childhood-bound collaborators.

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Ketamines drummer Jesse Locke immediately suggested Felix Morel when Lawton asked him about artists to consider for the 4x7” project. “I’ve been a fan of Felix’s stuff for years,” says Locke. “Felix did a cassette for this label Los Discos Enfantasmes — like, gatefold sleeve, 70s prog-rock-style art, with wizards and magic. And his own band, Panopticon Eyelids, has always had crazy art work as well — just B-movie, horror, sci-fi, kinda schlocky, with a million different images combined. I thought it’d be a perfect fit for the band and for the series, especially because it was a collect-em-all kind of thing.”

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They let Morel run with the concept with only the unheard Ketamines recordings in hand. “We gave him complete carte blanche,” says Locke. “We just sent him the songs, and he was like ‘Okay, just give me a bit of time, I’ll need to listen to these and dream something up.’ When he gets an idea he works really fast, but his conceptual stage is kind of what takes a while. So it took about a month, but then he latched on to these 80s Halloween costume catalogues for the art. It’s all bizarre fake versions of Batman, Star Wars, The Lone Ranger, Elvira — but it’s like off-market Elvira and Batman. As you can see, there’s a father and son Batman in one of the sleeves. It’s this weird Halloween-80s-sci-fi-horror kinda concept.”

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Morel collected and loved Wacky Packages (and other stuff like Garbage Pail Kids cards) as a kid too. He also liked the idea of adding to the Ketamines’ cryptic collage aesthetic with the 4x7” project, and he “liked the songs and thought I could do them justice.” So he tapped into his pop-cultural memory bank as well.

“I visualized a fake promo campaign based on the collectible movie cards from my childhood, the ones that came with a big slab of pink bubblegum,” explains Morel. “I remember in the 80s collecting the E.T. cards and trading in the schoolyard to complete the black-and-white puzzle that was on the back of the cards. So I made up a movie in my mind called ‘Chaos Planet Rebel Forces,’ which is visually inspired by the movie Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, aka Turkish Star Wars. The movie is an amazing mix-and-match of actual Star Wars scenes mixed with the budget Turkish version — total budget-pop-art-collage style. I had just found this amazing costume catalog with really cool photos and it was the perfect opportunity to use them in a collage. Space ninjas and UFOs versus amphibian aliens battleships! Collect all four!

Morel also borrowed from other Ketamines records by incorporating black-and-white wavy swirls. While it’s unlike any other Ketamines cover, Morel’s 4x7” collage manages to hit a similar note composed by both darkness and lightness, an intermingling of sinister and playful forces. He attributes this to the collage being inspired by Turkish Star Wars and other exploitation science fiction flicks. “They always have very basic, very defined good and bad characters” says Morel. “At one point I had a set of little kid witches but I lost the evil one so I couldn’t have the good-evil balance I had with all the other characters. So I filed the good witch away and forgot about that idea.”

Morel admits that his contribution doesn’t have anything to do with the lyrics or the band. “I usually choose the imagery based on a gut feeling I get listening to the music and for some reason the Ketamines inspired that collage.” The idea grabbed him by the belly after he discovered a seemingly picked-over costume catalogue on top of a trash can in Montréal’s Mile End district on his walk home one day.

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The serendipitous find became Morel’s catalyst for building a single composition made of four separate ones. “I did the whole thing on scale, 14 inches by 14 inches. I knew from the start I had to find a big central image around which I would collage different scenes from this fake mental movie in the four corners. That way I could ‘easily’ divide them in four in the middle to have the 7” covers. I didn’t know what the central image would be until I found this costume catalog in the trash. Inside I found these huge 13-inches-high pictures of women dressed as medieval princesses and I just had to add gold jewelery, half-alien faces and weapons on top of them to make them look like outer space princesses. I easily found all the rival warriors and magicians and contrasting colours, all in the same catalog. I tell you, this find really pushed the project forward big time! The fact that there was the basic B-movie sci-fi theme of good and evil planets and civilizations made the process of dividing the collage in four parts easier.”

Beyond his obviously fabulous imagination, it was Morel’s “zero digital” process — meticulously hand-cutting and -assembling his collages with scissors, glue and tape — that had heavy appeal for both Lawton and Locke. “He sent it to us fully completed and we thought it was amazing,” says Locke. “Between Tumblr and the cassette world there are a lot of people doing the collage thing nowadays and mashing a bunch of different elements together. But Felix does it in such a good way.” [Scroll down for a short Q&A about Morel’s creative process.]

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As if developing a four-way cover art project wasn’t tricky enough, another important aspect of the series is that it’s being distributed through flourishing outposts of the country’s garage rock community. Four Canadian labels are releasing individual Ketamines’ 4x7” records: Toronto’s Pleasence Records, Saskatoon’s Leaning Trees Records, Mississauga, Ontario’s Hosehead Records and Vancouver’s Mint Records.

Locke says the project was largely driven by Lawton’s massive passion for limited-edition releases made for collectors — “or for grippers, is the terminology that we like to use.”

Had Lawton also been holding carte blanche, the 4x7” set might be much tougher to grip. “My original idea got vetoed by James, who I write songs with,” explains Lawton. “I wanted the first one to be 500 copies, the second one would be 400, the third would be 300 and the last one would be 100. So it’d be almost impossible to complete the whole thing. James is really big on having the music be available to everyone — he doesn’t buy into the same collector neurosis that I do.”

For those of you that do share Lawton’s neurosis, the last 7” in the series, Stay Awake, drops on February 18, 2014. Three hundred copies of each 7” were pressed.

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Lawton remembers a younger version of himself hunting for records almost solely on the strength and strangeness of their covers, specifically at a store called Records on Wheels in Winnipeg in the 90s. And while the Ketamines 4x7” series certainly taps into that particular nostalgia, Lawton’s actually aiming to hit an even deeper nerve.

“Everybody’s whole day is in front of a computer now,” says Lawton. “And you see images all day long, to the point where I think we’ve become desensitized to images as a beautiful thing. And then when you get one of these things and you hold it in your hand, there’s something to the evocative power of an object that takes over.”

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Ketamines: You Can’t Serve Two Masters [September 2013] — Paul Lawton first started getting Carlos Ruiz to create cover art for his records about five years ago, during an unexpected shift in his already prolific stretch as a music-maker.

“I was in all these other bands that were touring, and Myelin Sheaths was kind of my fun side project with these two girls who really were just learning to play instruments, and I was just learning how to play drums, and we had this other guy who was kind of just starting too,” explains Lawton. “I was in quote-unquote ‘good bands,’ and then I had this band that was kind of on the side where we would just make really shitty demos and put them out on the Internet, on MySpace. We got picked up by HoZac, a label out of Chicago, one of the biggest American garage labels going right now. That was in 2010, and it kind of spring-boarded us into record labels wanting to all of a sudden put out our records. I started playing in bands in 1995, so 15 years of touring and playing and everything before anybody took us seriously.”

Ruiz (aka C.m.) was really into the Myelin Sheaths’ HoZac 7”, Do the Mental Twist, and he and Lawton connected through mutual friends in Vancouver’s garage-punk scene. Evidently Ruiz knew he was really going to like the band’s follow-up record too. “He just gave us the cover for our second single, which was out on a German garage label called Bachelor,” says Lawton. “It was called Stackticon, which was named after a promotional Burger King-Transformers tie-in. It was this idea of a burger as a transformer that we wrote a song about. I think that single is the best thing that band did.”

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Ruiz remembers hanging out with Myelin Sheaths at the Smmr Bmmr festival and just really enjoying their company. Lawton really liked Ruiz’s process — using photocopied distortion rather than Photoshopping, cutting and pasting everything by hand. The materials that went into the first cover Ruiz made for Lawton [above] give a nice snapshot of his style. “The girl in the center is from a picture of all these teens at a indoor pool in the 50s and to her right was a young boy laughing, so that’s why she looks so happy — I imagine he told her a joke or is flirting with her or something,” says Ruiz. “The bottom half is of a lake covered in lily pads printed on green paper instead of white, and the top is just Xerox noise. I hand-cut the lettering and the back is right out of my sketchbook, of the girl who is my model of all my Fungi Girl pieces — when she was like 17 or something. I don’t really remember what Paul and I working together that first time was like, but I imagine it was good for us to work together so much since.”

The result was most definitely good for Lawton. “I absolutely loved that,” he says. “To this day, I think it’s the standard I hold that guy to.”

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Ruiz’s disquieting female figures became a signature on Lawton’s records in 2010 (and they’ve anchored the Ketamines brand ever since). He made the cover for a release with another of Lawton’s music projects, the Radians’ Iran 7” [above], in early summer. Then another trippy lady became the emblem on the Myelin Sheaths’ full-length record, Get On Your Nerves, released that October.

“It’s a woman who he photocopied to obscurity and then drew weird squiggles all over her,” explains Lawton. “In the first version she was just standing tall on the thing and he didn’t like that, so he clipped the bottom half and then repeated it on the top, to kind of give the illusion of it coming down like a filmstrip. We used that image for T-shirts and everything. Everything we’ve done with Carlos kind of begets itself to other merch things because they’re distinctive and unique, and simple enough to transfer.”

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Ruiz says the cover of the Myelin Sheaths full-length is probably still his favourite collaboration with Lawton. “I was in Copenhagen and wandering around alone thinking that I needed to get this cover done for Paul,” recalls Ruiz. “So I was going down weird little streets until I found this place with the crappiest Xerox machines and the guy only spoke German and I made the basis for this cover there. For some reason the Xerox machine kept printing track lines all over the images. For reference on how crappy the Xerox machine was, I also made this…”

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Myelin Sheaths disbanded about a month after Get On Your Nerves dropped. Lawton says the split “was really disappointing,” but that it allowed him an opportunity to shift gears. “I’d been doing Ketamines with James Leroy since the late 90s, we had changed the name from James Leroy around 2010,” he recalls. “We were just making records in our garage and James has a lot of health issues so we didn’t ever really push it, but every year we’d make a new record and just never give it to anybody, so we had this stockpile from the last 13 years that was just sitting there. After I saw the writing on the wall that Myelin Sheaths was done, I really started pushing this Ketamines project.”

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Lawton enlisted Ruiz to make two covers [above — the official release, plus another version for a limited release] for the Ketamines’ HoZac 7”, which came out in September 2011. The image’s lightness with a dark side — evil eyes without pupils, but surrounded by colours and bubbles — also began to reveal how deeply their sensibilities overlapped.

“For a long time, we would describe Ketamines as bubble-gum-psych-pop, and I think Carlos’ artistic vision is very psychedelic but still poppy, too,” explains Lawton. “Even the way that he free-hands everything, there’s a levity to his design — if you’re working with a designer who’s doing everything in Photoshop, for example, I find there’s a sterility to it a lot of the time. There are no errors; everything is perfect. Nothing in Carlos’ work is symmetrical, nothing is even. And it’s kind of haphazard, but in a really beautiful way. It looks like a human being did this, and you can tell something about that person.

“There have been debates in the band whether we should start moving away from Carlos, and I’ve always resisted it because everything he gives me, my reactions are always the same. At first I’m like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know about this,’ and then I’ll look at it more and I get more and more excited about it. And when I get them in the mail — I remember getting the Spaced Out LP in the mail, and having really hated it on the computer, but seeing it in that 12-inch vinyl format, it just comes to life in this really unique way.”

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Lawton has learned to stay out of the way after he asks Ruiz to create something. “I’ve looked at his portfolio in the past and told him something I really like that he did. But then he kind of spaces out and does whatever he’s going to do anyway.” That said, Lawton finds Ruiz really easy to work with and appreciates the mystery of his process — “I feel like the more I tried to direct him, the worse it would be.”

There’s also an inherent trust and appreciation that comes from having mutual friends and momentum, as well as working with and admiring a similar subculture of musicians. “I like it because I’m not just trying to work with someone who doesn’t really care about me or my band, and is just taking it on as a job — Carlos really gets the music and what we’re doing,” says Lawton. “Our trajectories have also been very similar. We both have been doing stuff for a long time and then things started to catch on at roughly the same time.”

Through the small deluge of Ketamines record art, show posters and other merch items that Ruiz has adorned over the last few years, originality has remained a priority. When Ruiz set about developing cover art for the band’s 2013 LP, You Can’t Serve Two Masters, his main aim was to make sure it didn’t look like anything else he’d done for the band.

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“I don’t think I actively tried to reflect too deep of a meaning into it, though I was listening to the songs as I often do to get the right vibe,” says Ruiz. “All I think I was really trying is to do was a face on a record cover, but have it be unrecognizable. That and maybe trying to show that it wasn’t recognizable even if she was looking in the mirror because she was so effed on drugs. Basically a drugged-out cutie.”

In retrospect, Ruiz’s favourite thing about this latest Ketamines cover girl comes from the textural detail surrounding her. “I like that even though I don’t really know how to use computers, I successfully scanned it well enough that it looks like scraps of paper hanging on the cover,” says Ruiz.

Lawton sees a stronger link with the spirit of these particular songs, both in the paper scraps and the drug-out cutie’s mug. “There’s a duality to it, which is in a way kind of sinister,” he says. “But the way that it’s all cut up and thrown about, it’s just like, there’s nothing serious about it. He definitely has that sense of playfulness. And especially in the way it says You Can’t Serve Two Masters, it’s just him free-handing with a sharpie. There’s no attention to font, it’s not overly designed, it’s just like, ‘I’m gonna cut this shit up and stick it back together and that’s what it is.’ I think it works with the title and the theme of the record, which is kind of the about the impossibility of living competing lives.”

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Qs & As with C.m. Ruiz

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LPWTF  Where does your artistic vision or style come from?
CmR  “If you looked at some of my early work, I was drawing all of my posters. And a lot of them were based on illustration I saw what worked on gigposters, then it turned my illustrations into more of a 60s psychedelia sort of vibe. Then one day Brian Standeford asked if I would be interested in him doing an image and me doing the lettering for a poster since I was getting more into that element of posters. He taught me how to use the different settings for Xerox machines and what kind of output you could produce with subtle tricks. And then I started getting into Xerox-only design. I found a lot of inspiration in those old rock posters but also old punk fliers and tried to mix it with modern print design that I thought looked cool and worked well. I was doing two to five free posters a week when I was 18, 19 and 20, so I had a lot of practice.”

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LPWTF  Why no Photoshop? What do you enjoy about how you work?
CmR  “I don’t have a computer and doing it by hand seems like more of a science to me. It’s tangible and I can make it do whatever I want rather than Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen Edges or something. It’s just easier to wrap my head around and at this point it’s becoming a dying art that I’m glad to still be actively doing.”

imageLPWTF  Given your affinity for imperfection, what feels as close to perfect as you get in your work?
CmR  “I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten anything perfect before. With my art though there are tons of instances where I really love the accidental scuzz marks and dirty fuzziness left by the Xerox machines or sharpie bleed-through. I have personal favorites but I do a lot of art for a lot of different clients, so there may be too many realms for me to choose just one.”

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LPWTF  Where and how do you like to hunt for collage materials?
CmR  “I can’t really find what I use in thrift stores, but sometimes antique shops will have cool old girly mags. A really reliable source is flea markets. When people just bring tons of old crap they want to get rid of, you can find some real gems in the piles of publications. One of the shops I go to in Seattle whenever I have some money is this place in Pioneer Square. You have to go under a guitar shop and then you get to this antique store with really low ceilings — and they have a lot of old Seattle memorabilia. But in this tiny back room they have a bunch of nudist magazines and WWII-era girly magazines. The room is separated by gay and straight magazines but there are a lot more hard cocks on the walls. It’s a pretty cool shop.”

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LPWTF  Where do you go to create?
CmR  “Unfortunately I have to go to Kinkos sometimes because there are a few by my house, but in the last four years they’ve gotten super expensive and their machines are all digital so I try to avoid it. I used to go to this place called CK Graphics since they were .04 cents a copy and they had machines from the late 80’s and early 90’s — that was the perfect look. But they closed after the owner retired in January 2013, so now I like to go to a place called Rams Copy, which has those same machines for .06 cents a copy and it has computers so I can scan stuff and email it to people when it’s done. In a healthy sitting I will usually go there for about four hours and in that time do something like two posters, a record cover and often I’m working on some sort of other project like an illustration that I can finish alongside those other things.”

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LPWTF  What’s on your cutting room floor?
CmR  “There’s always stuff that I do when I’m trying to warm up that just ends up in the rubbish bin. It’s always kinda crappy. If there is something but it’s not quite right, but the image is really great, I will kinda just bank it for awhile and some time in the future come back to it and see if now I know how to use it properly. That’s why even though I get rid of those drafts, I don’t toss out my magazines.”

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Qs & As with Felix Morel

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LPWTF  Where does your artistic vision or style come from?
FM  “I don’t know if I have a ‘vision’ for my art but I know my aesthetic comes from my childhood, stuff I took for granted at the time but now realize are pretty cool and entrenched in me — pop culture stuff like airbrush art, early computer art, toy packaging, B-movie and science-fiction art and tropes, new age and visionary art. I mix these influences with more highbrow art and concepts such as pop art, surrealism and dada, punk and metal imagery, trance states, optical illusions.”

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LPWTF  Why no Photoshop? What do you enjoy about how you work?
FM  “Well, I am not very good at the computer and Photoshop in particular, so I find it very funny when people tell me I make very good Photoshop collages. I actually take it as a compliment— mission accomplished! I like to keep it old-school: paper, scissors, glue, some paint and sharpie pen when I need to hide something. Bringing a computer in the collage process kinds of defeat the handmade optical illusions I want to achieve. It becomes too easy and loses some of its power. That’s why it can take me a while before I am done on a piece, because there is no random shit and no computer cheating.”

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LPWTF  Given your affinity for imperfection, what feels as close to perfect as you get in your work?
FM  “My Bataille Solaire self-titled cassette cover [above] is 95 per cent perfect. It feels almost perfect because I was able to do it just the way I had envisioned it in my head. I wanted to do a really simple collage using only stock images but have it look like a new age occult paperback. The poison glass skull bottle on a mirror comes from a collectors’ encyclopedia book I have, I think, but pretty much the whole thing comes from 90s stock image catalogs. I wish I had put the right side aura face with red lighting bolt a bit more centered, but at the same time it’s the obvious move to do for me, placing the elements symmetrically for easy composition. So yeah, I am really proud of that Bataille Solaire collage — it’s really small too, like 2” by 5”. I am also very proud of Blood From The Tiger’s Womb, the collage I made for Bataille Solaire’s second tape, Documentaires [below]. That said, I usually work on a collage until I find it perfect so I could probably name a bunch I feel are perfect. I don’t do many collages either, so I don’t have a pile of mediocre ones I don’t show to people.”

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LPWTF  Where and how do you like to hunt for collage materials?
FM  “I do a weekly round of various pawn shops and charity stores for useful books and magazines. I also have a pretty big archive of books, magazines, photocopies of patterns and colored paper to chose from, all indexed by subject for easy finding. I also pick up anything useful in the trash and recycling bins when I can. I did an insert for The Unireverse LP around a Vachon Christmas Log Cake packaging I found in the middle of the street.”

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All images by Felix Morel & C.M. Ruiz. Story by Eric Rumble. Track down Ketamines records via Bandcamp.

Postscript: I’m putting LPWTF on indefinite hiatus after this post. I haven’t been able to devote much time to it for most of the last couple of years, and I’m spending so much time on a computer at my day gig that I need to start finding excuses not to pour more of myself into a screen at home. So I’m gonna dig into my LPs instead of their hidden stories. For now, anyway. Many thanks for your eyeballs.

Mar 12

Purity Ring + Kristina Baumgartner = Shrines’ supernatural sheep guardian

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Purity Ring: Shrines [July/2012] — Crafting images to complement the stirring mystical ecosystem of Megan James’ lyrics and voice and the heart-jacking, spine-jangling textures of Corin Roddick’s soundscapes can’t be easy. And Kristina Baumgartner admits to sketching out a lot of different ideas for the cover of Purity Ring's much anticipated full-length debut before she had the right one. But once it took shape, the rest of the Shrines packaging illustrations flowed from there.

Baumgartner didn’t have a lot of cash to spend on art supplies when she was creating the drawings, so she worked with what she had. “I drew everything with pencil crayons and wax pastels on large sheets of brown construction paper, which I cut into 12-inch squares.”

Improvisation seems to be one of Baumgartner’s habits; just this month she released her first zine, called House Plant, which she painted and self-produced. She describes it as “10 little paintings [like the one below] all done in ink that represent my home life this winter. I spent most of the season alone in this big apartment with my cat, and I got sucked into my own little world. The paintings are about that.” Baumgartner is selling House Plant in some Montreal shops and online (or you could pick one up at Purity Ring’s merch table on their North American tour in April and May 2013 — for which she also designed a new poster and tote bag).

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LPWTF: I read about how the illustration with the coffin was entirely based on “Crawlersout.” Can you tell me about the specific lyrics or ideas that inspired the Shrines album cover image. Also, how did sheep originate as an appropriate symbol for the band and its music?

KB: For the Lofticries 7-inch [see below], I had cut out dozens of photographs to collage together for the cover. Corin really liked some of the sheep ones I had. I was interested in Catholic imagery at the time and so I came up with this image of a girl watching over her flock of sheep. To me, sheep represent a kind of innocence and purity and so I thought it was an appropriate symbol for the band.

When we were coming up with ideas the Shrines cover, I originally wanted it to be a photograph of a girl laying with her sheep in some kind of sacrificial setting. However, Megan and Corin really wanted me to draw the cover. So it’s essentially the same idea only simpler. The lungs overhead come from a line from “Fineshrine.”

[Get a little closer, let fold / Cut open my sternum, and pull / My little ribs around you / The lungs of me be crowns over you]

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Why are hands and fire also good symbols to represent the songs on Shrines?

A lot is based off some of the meanings of Megan’s lyrics. And since she doesn’t reveal what they mean, neither will I.

Without going to deep into it, Megan often writes about people’s spirits and about some type of motherly figure looking out for her. The ghost hands and then the human hands that surround the girl under the coffin are meant to represent those two forces.

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All of the images seem to be set in some sort of dreamscape or non-physical space, which I think gels nicely with the record’s lyrics and textures. Was this what you intended?

When I listen to Megan’s words, they all seem to be set in some non-physical space and I wanted the artwork to reflect that. The girl is a guardian of sheep and a dead loved one, and she lives in her own world.

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Who is the girl?

No one specifically.

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Where are the original illustrations now?

One illustration is framed in my living room, one I gave to Megan. The front and back cover are somewhere in the shed.

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What do you like about these images?

It feels weird for me to say what I like about the images when I made them. The only thing I can think to say is that I like how homely they are. And by that I mean that I like that they look so handmade. You can see all the pencil marks and texture on the LP. You can’t tell after it was all printed, but I coloured in all the black background and it took hours and hours. It left smudges, because I used a black wax pencil — well, I really went through like six of them — but we didn’t edit them out. I like the mistakes.

All images by Kristina Baumgartner. Story by Eric Rumble. Buy Shrines from 4AD.

Nov 17

Hook & Eye + Marc Rimmer = The shortest, silliest LPWTF post ever?

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Hook & Eye: North St. EP [Feb/2013] — Sometimes, impulsiveness is the best medicine. Sometimes even for record covers. 

My hyper-brilliant friend Marc Rimmer — whose work I profiled to get this blog off the ground almost two years ago, here — recently looped me in on the fabulously uncluttered guidance that led to his latest piece of kick-ass record packaging. Musician Jeff Macleod had enlisted Rimmer (an old buddy from the Calgary music scene) to design the cover art for his new band’s forthcoming EP.

Given that these two guys now live about 4,000 kms apart, this is how they settled on the image you see above, via text message:

Jeff: “I need an album cover. Got any sad, dark, lonely photos kickin’ around?”

Marc: “Not really, but here’s a photo I snapped at a farm on the weekend.” [At left, below.]

J: “Nice! It has the right mood, but needs something. Can you try superimposing a fire on it?”

M: “Sure, here you go.” [Middle.]

J: “Shit yeah! Well, while we’re on topic, if you make it an old Ford truck that’s on fire, I’ll give you free hand jobs and pizza for life.”

M: “Done.”

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Rimmer wrapped up the image by adding some glow coming off the truck and onto the surrounding grass. The original photo was taken on Rimmer’s iPhone during a foggy farmland excursion to Huberdeau, Quebec (about an hour and a half northwest of Montreal), and he suggested it because of its “isolated, ominous, super-surreal” qualities. (The fire came from one of his old camping photos, and he fixed up and recoloured a stock photo of the truck.)

Macleod describes North St.’s songs as “lo-fi, moody, indie” — which sounds exactly as they should, considering they were recorded by another lo-fi, moody, indie Calgarian, Clinton St. John. (Those two played alongside the indomitable Matt Flegel in The Cape May a few years ago.) The EP will be self-released on Fir Trade Records in early 2013, and Hook & Eye will support it with some shows in Calgary and probably a small western Canadian tour in the spring.

Although the dosage of forethought that went into the cover art creation is perfect, I asked Macleod to elaborate a little on the choice, albeit not too seriously: 

Why did a sad, dark and lonely image need to be on the cover of this record?
“It suits the mood of the music — especially ‘North St.’ and ‘Late Night Karate Practice’.”

Can you describe what you like about the cover image?
“I think it has a pretty starkness/somber beauty to it.”

What have you got against Ford trucks?
“Haha. Nothing. I was having sushi with a friend, and he saw an old one in his neighborhood earlier that day. It just popped into his head when we were deciding what to burn while texting with Marc.”

Can you tell me about the most enjoyable fire you were ever involved in building?
“My friends and I still have illegal fires down in a secret spot on the city reservoir all the time. We just bring wood, Roman candles and beer.”

How is your music similar to an abandoned patch of land?
“Hmmm… not sure. Maybe listen to ‘North St.' on our bandcamp. It’s an instrumental. Very minimalist.”

And for good measure, I asked Marc to send me a handful of other photos that he took on his road trip to rural Quebec. Enjoy: 

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All images by Marc Rimmer. Story by Eric Rumble. Hear and/or buy North St. from the Hook & Eye bandcamp page, or on vinyl from Fur Trade Recordings.

Sep 13

The Famines + Raymond Biesinger = Pushing the limitations of “as little as possible”

The Famines: The Complete Collected Singles, 2008 – 2011 [Nov/2011] — RAYMOND BIESINGER SAYS The Famines are collectors and archivists by nature. Biesinger — who writes, sings/wails and plays/thrashes guitar alongside Garrett Kruger’s flabbergasting drums — is the graphic architect of the five-year-old band’s no-frills, data-stratified aesthetic, not to mention a successful illustrator, designer and print media artist. So when he started working on cover art for this assemblage of 7-inch singles (many of them sold out), he began by simply rearranging the old record labels, cutting and pasting and mocking them up in search of a shape. 

“When doing 7-inches in the past, when it came to coming up with concepts, we always wanted to make sure that the cover reflected the actual content of the A-side, instead of just being a generalist catch-all image of the band, or an attempt to depict the band conceptually even,” explains Biesinger. “With a big LP like that, it would seem funny to illustrate only the first song because there are a lot of songs, and eventually it just made sense to try to use both the front and back cover to try to show what these things were before they became the collected 7-inches.”

Biesinger had tried a few things out, and then landed on the winning formation when he was half-asleep or something. “It really reminds me of a revolver, with the chambers that bullets go in,” he says. “I think it’s a very strong shape. What is that, a hexagon? Once I mocked it up I thought it looked wonderful, but then there was a small problem: We didn’t have 14 songs, we had 11 songs.” [One of those jams, “P. L. C. A.,” was recorded for a compilation called Bloodstains Across Alberta, and there are two new bangers as well, “Hi Hi Hi” and “Faux Famous,” all of which Biesinger whipped up labels for.]

This table-of-contents utility, with most of the circles indicating A-sides and B-sides in chronological order, is just the sort of match that Biesinger loves to strike. “The contents are described perfectly by the cover and rear cover, so it’s completely informative, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing. I think that’s what [The Famines] like to do: to have purpose behind everything we do. And to me there’s complete purpose to what’s on that record cover.” 

Perhaps there’s one marginal exception: the logos at the top right of the B-sides cover. Biesinger has made these little icons over the years to use in Famines merch and packaging, often as a layout device to “fill up space, finish off a thought.” He makes them with different levels of intent, sometimes “in a way that represents what we do, in other ways not at all. They’re just really convenient to have around. It’s funny, I would make posters sometimes and I would post them on gigposters.com and people would comment on what a shame the logos were.” Given that they depict things like can-can girls wearing balaclavas, Biesinger admits that “I think sometimes we fuck with people a little because there’s so much purpose in everything we do, and then you throw in something like that. What does that even mean?’ I try to avoid the subject because I don’t know.”

Here’s a hint at why Biesinger would rather deke: “When I see art that’s about nothing or art that people can’t back up, that people can’t say why it was made in an intelligent way that isn’t, like, crazy art-speak, I get angry. I really feel like there’s enough meaningless fluff, there’s enough amusing, funny things out there, that it’s our job to make stuff that actually has purpose and argument behind it.” 

The resulting aesthetic is certainly purposeful, if not downright shrewd. “It’s getting harder and harder economically to be a band, and to tour,” he explains. “If you make everything in black-and-white, it’s gonna be a hell of a lot cheaper. It always blows my mind when venues have full colour posters, 11 x 17. When we started, that’d be 80 cents each — you do [B&W] and it’s 10 cents each. I would rather have that 70 cents in my gas tank than doing as much as one of these [posters] could for our show.”

Buoyed by practicality, The Famines became documentarians early on (both in terms of the subject matter they tore into and their promo materials), which gelled nicely with stark, codified B&W. “I think that now the aesthetic is just so established in my mind that sometimes it takes over and makes me make things that look Famines-ish, but which don’t necessarily have much of a subject behind them,” says Biesinger. “I’m less strict these days. If I think something’s fun, I’ll just do it, as long as it’s small. But I would never do that with a 7-inch cover or record cover just for fun. I think the world has enough of that, I don’t need to do it.”

The process of coming up with designs to represent the band’s charged, provocative songs found a natural groove early on as well. “I know all the themes, I know the songs intimately, I know everything that I thought about while making them, so the subject material I always know well,” says Biesinger. “In the months leading up to a record, I’ll usually roll through a lot of ideas, and then when I think I’ve found the right one, I’ll bounce it off of Garrett and he’ll tell me if it’s bullshit or not. He’s a really good editor, quite honestly.”

Biesinger also says The Famines mostly came to be because Kruger pushed him over the line between talking about jamming and actually making a racket. “I’m not gonna say he forced me to do it, but if it was not for his originally enthusiasm, I would not be in bands anymore.” Kruger’s old band, The Wolfnote, and Biesinger’s, The Vertical Struts, had broken up, and they kept running into each other at the Black Dog in Edmonton, and eventually it just happened. (Biesinger moved to Montreal in August 2010.) He says their personalities are very different, but that they’re “growing together, which is kinda cool. Garrett’s pulled me out of my shell so much since 2008, I owe him a lot.” 

Whoever was most responsible for hatching The Famines, the band certainly seems to provide Biesinger with an essential creative outlet. And clearly — at least judging by his appreciation for small type — there’s a lot of ideas to share. “I’ve always been fascinated by context; I have a degree in history, and I want to know what is behind everything,” he explains. “The internet gives a lot of people an opportunity to get more information about things they don’t understand. So I think when I’m making physical things, I try and squeeze in as much context as possible, and that results in a lot of small type in a lot of places.” 

He admits that the attraction is economical for sure, but seems a bit surprised. “I never even thought of in that way—that I have a thing for small type. I think I have a tolerance for it, and I tend to not think about people with bad eyesight, maybe. Which is very cruel.”

The Famines: Syllables [May/2010] — Biesinger recognizes the font treatment on this particular 7-inch as particularly cruel, but “pretty necessary for what it is.” He wrote the A-side song as a rough parallel of George Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language. “After trying to think of ways to express that visually, I just decided to put the full text of the essay on the 7-inch. So that required a lot of squeezing, and I went back into my distant memories of laying out newspapers for The Gateway, and brought out some pull quotes. You would probably need a magnifying glass to read it properly.” (Damn skippy: that thing’s more than 5,250 words!)

Why did Biesinger want to write a song about the essay? “Because the band has always been about having purpose in our songs. Every single one of them is an argument. Not, ‘Yeah, you guys sound angry!’ But everything is carefully measured. There’s evidence, there’s a strong question that is about something. Orwell’s essay is all about how vagueness is kind of an agent of tyranny, and how if someone speaks in concrete specifics and actual facts instead of trying to obfuscate things, they’re doing well, and how we need to take steps to become more concrete in how we express ourselves in our everyday lives. I think that’s incredibly important.” 

Biesinger feels this concept is as resonant now as it was in 1946, when Orwell’s essay was published. “I think people are generally afraid of the consequences of having opinions about a lot of things. And perhaps even people who have formal arts training, because they know how to make things, but they don’t necessarily have that deep of a knowledge in other things. I think, if you go to art school, it’s very rare that you spend a lot of time reading about history or politics or economics or greater society. And so perhaps those people don’t feel comfortable going out on a limb and making statements about society that are very strong. Me, I’m just full of it.” 

He cites modern music journalism as a great example of concept-dodging. “I don’t know who’s worse: the band or the interviewer,” says Biesinger, ripping on cliches like the obligatory live sound versus studio sound discussion, and the fact that you end up talking about “anything but the actual meaning behind the songs. I feel like lyrics should have greater scrutiny and singers should be asked about them far more often. But I think that makes a lot of singers uncomfortable to have to actually defend what they’re saying in some way. I feel like the biggest cop-out in the world is to say, ‘It’s up to everyone to interpret this in the way that they choose.’ To me that feels irresponsible.”

How to Book a Maybe Successful Tour for a Band That Hasn’t received Hype on Pitchfork, etc. [Dec/2010] — You might not expect it from an irreverent, eardrum-drubbing band hatched in Edmonton, but one of their most popular merch items is rooted in sharing a practical perspective. Biesinger says there was a time when the How to Book… pamphlet was outselling all The Famines’ 7-inches, albeit at $1 a pop. “I remember one Christmas, I thought we weren’t a band anymore, we’re just a pamphlet,” he laughs.

Quite the opposite, actually. The pamphlet came out of the band’s unique experience. “I’ve booked five cross-Canadian tours now,” explains Biesinger. “And I have no illusions about our band — we’re not the next thing, we’re not that great, we’re not the next next next thing either. We’re a low-buzz band. Everything we’ve built, we’ve built because of a lot of hard work and not because some magazines decided that people should see us. I think that puts us in a situation which is really different from a lot of touring bands.”

Biesinger wrote a first draft of what later became the pamphlet because a friend from a band based in Kingston, Ontario, called False Face — “a band that was kind of in the same place as us, but hadn’t toured much at all” — asked him for advice about how to do it. So during a long stretch in the tour van, Biesinger cranked out a long, meticulous and blatantly honest email. “It was basically explaining how we tour, how it would be applicable to them. And I sent it to him, he really liked it, and a couple of months later I was thinking about this email I’d saved that was full of good advice. I’d also ended up sending it to other bands that we’d played with that had the same questions.”

Eventually he decided to edit it properly, add a few sections and make it fit into a layout — “and that the type was appropriately small,” he jokes. When I bring up the writing style, Biesinger calls it “pessimistic optimism” and “really frank.” Take the first line, for example: Certain regions, like Western Canada, destroy friendships and eat new bands alive. “And it’s a fact — I’ve seen it,” says Biesinger. “It’s not booster-ish. It’s super honest. This is what you need to do if you want to make this happen, and good luck—it’s hard.”

You’ll notice that the maps Biesinger used to illustrate the pamphlet have arrows suggesting movement. His original plan, “to add to the kind of fatalism, was to have each of the maps be of a different failure in war,” but he “managed to fail at doing that, although there still some failures in there—the Tet Offensive and some others.” Biesinger says he’s kind of amazed at how many people from different parts of the country that play different kinds of music have been interested in it. “There’s a section at the end that I’m exceptionally happy with that’s all about the economics of being a C-level, D-level, E-level touring band these days, and how things have changed in the last 50 years.” 

This is a subject area Biesinger knows intimately. One of his many fabulously nerdy design and illustration projects beyond The Famines has been an (ongoing) infographic that tracks the history of the Edmonton music scene back into to the 1950s. To produce that piece of work (26-feet and growing by the year), he spoke with a lot of musicians, and ultimately came to understand that there are “far far far fewer bands these days that are making a living wage touring than there used to be.” He also learned that for the larger, entertainment-hunting public, live music is no longer such an easy draw. 

“There used to be regional acts that could perform, say, all over Alberta even, and play every night of the week, maybe doing moderately challenging Beatles-esque stuff, or Who-ish stuff. They could make a living doing that in the 60s. Then there’s a change in demographics, there’s more competition in terms of entertainment, the internet fragments people’s ideas of what they want to see. It makes it easy for you or me to be really excited about what’s going on in Japan now, but it’s really rare that someone uses the internet to look for new things locally. I think people who pay attention to the local scene are exceptional.” 

(But I digress… or Biesinger did, I’m not sure who to blame. In any case, he says he’s “really excited about the pamphlet format these days.” He’s also made one from a talk that he does about the future of commercial art, called Doom.) 

Oddly enough, in spite of Biesinger’s observations about the state of live music, The Famines have carved out a respectable following across the country. After two years of playing together they had put on 125 shows, and “that felt like a lot, so we decided to celebrate it,” says Biesinger. So, naturally, he created a big, silkscreened, B&W map that catalogued all of those shows. 

He chose the odd map shape because “I was just in the mood for something incredibly geometric,” and he says it’s loosely based on the Canada’s 125th celebrations that went down in 1992. “I knew that for the regions we did not play in, we could de-emphasize them. So, sorry about everyone who lives in the Arctic, and everyone who lives near Lake Superior. I stripped Canada down to its absolute minimum, and kept what was needed to express the information.”

Drawing from a master list of all the Famines shows (Biesinger does the booking), the map lists every city, venue and date they played in chronological order. “I’m a trained historian, making records is what I do,” quips Biesinger. Originally he’d tried to include the names of all the bands they’d played with as well, “but that would have maybe quadrupled the amount of text, and any way I tried to lay that out it just didn’t look good.” 

Cutting back is perhaps the most essential move in Biesinger’s repertoire — if not anyone’s. “We live in very fortunate place and a very fortunate time, when you and me can take advantage of incredibly cheap technology to do almost anything that we would want aesthetically, or in a publishing sense,” he says. “The options open to us are absolutely enormous, and I think in that setting, one of the most interesting things you can do is accept limitations and work within them, or impose limitations on yourself. So my goal for the last 10 years, aesthetically, has been all about trying to push as little as possible as far as possible. That’s why I’ve been in two-piece bands since 1999. That’s why I don’t use pedals when I play. The band is trying to make the most out of guitar, drums and singing. And in illustration, I’ve just started working with four colours, and to me that’s the frontier. But still, doing something in black and white and very simple is super exciting.”

The Famines: Free Love [July/2009] — So obviously Biesinger is pretty serious about what he makes. And to the fictional condom machine brands and ads he created (with help) for The Famines’ second 7-inch release, he says, “That’s about as funny as we get.” 

He’s ain’t kidding, either. The Centipede, The Hook, and The Black Mamba seem as though they’d be particularly ill-fitting. I’d suspect The Freedom Tickler might offer an uncomfortably aggressive level of protection. Puss Shock would demand a pretty special lady. [Fun fact: the head was a made using a photo of Biesinger’s cat, Cleo.] Some of the labels are inside jokes, such as The Lobster Tail, courtesy of a friend of Kruger’s who claims his dick has a lobster tail on its end. (Nobody verified this, BTW.) 

While the collection certainly draws on residual ideas from tour stops in small bar bathrooms over the years, there’s also a method to this particular madness. “The A-side is called ‘Free Love As A Sales Technique,’” explains Biesinger. “At the time, I was watching a little bit of Sex in the City with my wife, and I was noticing how it seemed like adultery was kind of becoming okay in culture. It was something that was kind of being given sanction by mass media — a legitimate thing that you could do and the world wasn’t going to end. I thought that was a very bad thing. So the track, I guess you could kind of look at it as: Sex sells, isn’t that kind of gross, and don’t we have better things to do?” 

At one point Biesinger’s plan was to drive around Alberta and take photos of a bunch of condom vending machines as source material. “But then I realized, ‘Oh shit, this thing needs to be at the plant, like, next week.’ And also, how unsatifisying would that be to drive around Alberta and find out that these things are actually only in two different places or something? So I ended up going with the internet for the general ones, but I’d say about two thirds or these are completely invented. Garrett and the label and I just made a giant list of the most ridiculous condoms you could imagine, and then I took the ones that I could illustrate quickly and made them.” 

The Famines: 14 July 2008 [April/2009] — At the time, a quick-and-dirty project was probably necessary after the elaborate Famines’ release that Biesinger had produced over the previous year or so. In early 2008, he’d opened up a book publishing house called the Belgravian Press. “I had a big Xerox machine, a book-binding machine, a stack cutter — I had everything you needed to make books,” he says. Having such toys had a curious effect: “There’s a saying that goes something like, ‘When you have a hammer, you think every problem is a nail.’ Well, when you have a book publishing house, you think every problem is a book.”

That summer — on July 15, precisely — The Famines had played their inaugural show, which kicked off their first Western Canadian tour and the release of their first recording, 2x7. Edmonton’s arts weekly, Vue, wanted to document a warm-up performance, so they’d arranged for Biesinger and Kruger to give their set a stomp-through on the day before, July 14. “It was the first time we’d played live — there were maybe three or four people there — and it was perhaps indicative of how Famines shows are,” recalls Biesinger. “It was crazy, we gave it our all. We were scheduled to play eight songs, but after the seventh, I broke the neck off my guitar. It was hilarious. It was the first time I’d done that. And we’re just playing for the arts weekly, in our studio, and there are six people there.”

The Vue crew produced some material from the recording, which Biesinger says “sounds really ragged, but there’s a spirit behind it that’s really nice.” The quality was too low to press an LP with it, but they wanted to do something, and settled on a cassette release. “We thought it was best not seen as a studio recording, it was better as a document of a time and place. So we established that, and then I thought, ‘Well, how do you make sure people understand that?’ I realized we’d probably need a lot of liner notes, because I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just a little J-card. So I starting thinking about how you could package it as a book.”

One of Biesinger’s priorities while producing books was to pay special attention to their size and shape. “Using Canada Post’s shipping standards, we intentionally made stuff that would be cheap to ship,” he says. A book stacked on top of a tape would mean hefty shipping fees, but they would fit through the mail slot if they were packaged side-by-side. So the next step was to figure out how many pages a book would need to be cassette-sized. The answer turned out to be 268. 

“So then the problem became: How do you fill a book that small with information, and what the fuck do you include? And the answer is: everything,” explains Biesinger. “We wanted it not to be bullshit. We wanted it to be totally factual. We wanted to involve as many people as possible, and I got off on the idea of it being like a primary source. A future historian could look at this, and it isn’t about The Famines It’s about people in 2008 who were making music — where they came from, what resources they had, all kinds of details about them.”

The result is basically a meticulous record of The Famines getting off the ground. The front section details how the book was made and the context it was made in, including a chart about the band’s economics — “How much money we made and lost in the first year leading up to having our first show.” There are maps of the band’s jam space and the studio where the book was bound and created. Biesinger, Kruger and the Vue folks all filled out questionnaires that asked for all sorts of detail: height, weight, educational and employment history, marital status, gender, eye colour, net worth (“Which is hilarious”), hospital visits in the last 12 months, co-habitants, past residences, and so on. Each person was also asked to itemize the tools they used to produce the recording, to describe that day and what happened to them immediately afterwards. 

“It’s a full account of July 14, 2008, for everyone who participated,” says Biesinger. When he explained it to everyone, he also insisted on honesty. “We wanted it to be true, we didn’t want any jokes. We wanted this to be as if you were reporting it to the police.” Indeed: Everyone also supplied their fingerprints. If there was something they didn’t feel comfortable discussing, Biesinger asked them to make up something plausible.  

Apparently Kruger was preoccupied during production, and didn’t even see the finished product until it was printed. He was also the last to submit his questionairre, which Biesinger says was well worth the wait. “His information is awesome. His description of his morning before the recording, it’s like: I was riding on my exercise bike and I was listening to Ozzy Osborne’s Blizzard of Oz, and when Snowblind came on, I paused for a moment…” 

Kruger’s level of honesty actually became a point of contention. “Garett’s parents were upset with him for being really specific about certain things, because we did a run of 300 and then another 50, and in the other 50 we removed some information about him.” Those 350 were “incredibly easy to sell” once Biesinger began putting the cassette on The Famines’ merch table. “There would be people who were at our show who just wandered in, and they’d be total weirdos, and I’d show it to them and they’d be like, ‘I don’t care who your band is, I want this.’ People were very enthused.” 

This sort of reaction was hard-earned, considering the intense labour and incomprehensibly skinny profit margins. Kruger dubbed all of the tapes on their label’s dubbing machine, and the book was hand-cut, hand-scored and hand-glued. “Because we were on a tight deadline again, I had four assistants in the studio working full-time for a week making them,” says Biesinger. “It took a ridiculous amount of time. And they ended up costing us about $9 to make, and we sold them for $10, which is the dumbest thing in the world. But we ended up breaking even, or I think we lost $40 on it.”  

As well as not losing too much money or too many marbles, Biesinger was surprised that the release charted pretty well on campus radio. “I’ve always been down on the recording, but other people found ways to really like the recording. So that makes me feel good.”

(Another digression, for the sake of cassette collectors: July 14 2008 is being repressed by Ottawa-based label Bruised Tongue, and will be released on October 17. Says Biesinger: “While we would’ve liked to have the book reprinted as well, it would’ve been impossible. So, the book is included as a download.”) 

(Ok, just one more brief digression: Another problem that Biesinger tried to solve by making it a book was the implosion of a band from Vancouver called the Molestics. “Remember the swing craze in the late 90s and early 2000s? They were kind of dirty, absurdist, retarded swing. They did really well in Edmonton for a long time, and the lead singer, Mike Soret, a total drunk, he wrote his memoirs, and I published them. And I thought it was magnificent. I’m sure some people have read Gord Downie’s or David Bidini’s books, and I think that when you’re hearing about the Canadian music experience, you always hear the success stories. But the thing about the Molestics is that they were a self-described C-level band that did kind a well — they could sell 100 tickets anywhere in Canada on a good night, they toured Canada a lot, and the West Coast of the States. But then they failed horribly. And that’s how 99 per cent of my friends’ bands end, and so the story was really relatable. It’s about a musician who’s at a level above where I’ve been, but his experience I recognize, and it’s honest. The band fails, breaks up, he tries to kill himself — it’s all in the book. And I think that’s a story that hasn’t been told, and I think it’s important to tell.”) [The book is called Confessions of a Local Celebrity: A Tale of Rags to No Rags by Mike Soret.]  

The Famines: 2x7 [July/2008] — Biesinger’s work compels because of his tremendous enthusiasm for gritty details, infographic-grade density and blunt, charming delivery. These talents, and nimble self-promotion, have taken him far. To reference just one solid example: when I interviewed him earlier this year, he gave me a copy of Spin magazine, in which his work regularly appears above Patton Oswalt’s back-page rant.

Given that his Famines work is even more deeply layered by the music it complements, there’s an enigmatic quality to the messages that emerge. As you’d expect from a self-proclaimed archivist, Biesinger’s also done a great job of assembling breadcrumbs that explore how that aesthetic has materialized. And as you’d expect from an astute businessman, he’s also released four editions (so far) of A Visual History of the Famines

The 50-page book, which Biesinger admits “isn’t organized very chronologically,” collects Famines concert posters, design ideas and mock-ups of things that didn’t end up in production. The first edition contained posters from the first Famines show, some early art concepts, vinyl label mock-ups (with visual treats like Serge Gainsbourg’s name on what is now-obviously a Famines 7-inch) and a bunch of different variations on the 2x7 cover. Some of those early experiments also speak directly to the band’s dynamic, juxtaposing facial fragments of Hollywood bad ass Charles Bronson and Canadian broadcaster and humanitarian diplomat Stephen Lewis.

“Early on in The Famines, we decided we were never going to do band photographs because we do not like the idea of there being a connection between personal appearance or beauty and artistic validity,” explains Biesinger, “so we adopted surrogates.” Bronson represents a forceful and severe nature, and Lewis brings rationality and argument to the table. If you’ve read this far, you’ll know who’s supposed to be who. 

It’s probably safe to assume that part of what keeps the band going is the tension between those two iconic opposites, and for Biesinger, the challenge that this tension provides. “Writing songs is hard,” he says. “My excuse to not write more songs is to make this stuff.” 

All art by Raymond Biesinger. Story by Eric Rumble. Buy The Complete Collected Singles, 2008 – 2011 and other releases from The Famines’ bandcamp page and Mammoth Cave Recording, or buy other rad stuff created by Biesinger at his Etsy page.  

ALSO: The Famines will be on tour in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes from October 17 to 28, 2012. Biesinger is designing T-shirts — “A collection of our favourite things, all through the federalist lens,” as you can see below — that you may wanna snag from their merch table (it’ll be getting chilly by then). 

Jul 16

Apollo Ghosts + Amanda Curti = Landmark’s dark and stormy urgency

Apollo Ghosts: Landmark (May/2012) — THERE ARE DENSE subtleties tucked into the name of this west coast band’s third full-length record. There’s a cryptic link to their first two LPs and some of their EPs, which are named for specific places — Mount Benson, Hastings Sunrise, Forgotten Triangle, Cedar Street. The reference in this case is to the building where most of the songs where written, also called Landmark. Apollo Ghosts’ songwriter, singer and guitarist Adrian Treacher describes it as a “no-nonsense brick shithouse” that managed to stay dry during Vancouver’s leaky condo crisis in the 80s and 90s.

Treacher also likes the tongue-and-cheekiness of the album title. “A landmark record sounds like a pretty bold or presumptuous or pretentious idea, but we made this ourselves for, like, five dollars.” More directly, the name taps into Treacher’s life trajectory. “I’m in my 30s now, and just getting to that point where people around me are getting married or having kids or breaking up or making big life decisions, and that definitely has a connection to the title and to the cover. People are coming in to make a nest or make a choice to stay somewhere permanently, whereas the last record was a lot more about childhood and looking back at younger years.”

While Treacher says that “about 90 per cent” of the record was written in Vancouver, the rest of it materialized on the other side of country, notably the cover image. Treacher had landed a writer-in-residence grant in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2011, “so I got to basically go there and just hang out and write songs for the summer — it was awesome.” Not so awesomely, his band’s gear was stolen during Sappyfest (thievery aside, arguably the country’s most compelling homespun music festival), so he ended up staying at a local hosting house for a few days. It turned out to be a very special place, complete with a jam space and other transient musicians willing to share their equipment (the diabolically wonderful Chad VanGaalen among them). 

“Almost anytime there’s a band coming into town, we always invite them in ‘cause we have a huge house, and I love hosting bands and cooking for them,” says Amanda Curti, the artist and Mount Allison University undergrad who lives in and looks after the place. A series of large, unconventional family portraits by Curti are spread around the walls (more on those later), and “weird cartoons drawn all over the walls” according to Treacher. 

There are also a half-dozen collages hanging in the bathroom, all of them a few years old, also done by Curti. Mostly they depict ducks with smokestacks coming out of their heads and octopuses attached to garbage — “I was living in Windsor at the time,” says Curti,” so pollution and dirtiness had a major effect on everything I was doing.” They’re all untitled, made on discarded pine cabinets with images liberated from old Sally Anne books, and coated in dark lacquer. The oddball of the bunch — landscape orientated, with no polluted wildlife — became both the cover image and finishing touch on Landmark. In a pinch, evidently. 

“Like most of our ideas, which truly spawn from being in the bathroom, I was just awestruck by this really cool collage that she had made,” says Treacher. “Sometimes it’s a small thing like a record cover that will be that last piece of the puzzle. You’re looking, you have a general sense of a batch of songs or a theme or a feeling or something, and then you walk into a bathroom and there’s the final piece. It just seemed instant. I looked up and I saw it, and I was like: there’s the album cover, right there, that’s how this record feels to me. After that it was really easy to finish the record.”

For Curti, creating those pieces was also cathartic, albeit tied to a different lever in her creative process. “They were just fun pieces that I did when I was bored, and I kept them,” says Curti. “If I feel stuck when I’m painting or printmaking, I usually go back to collage to get everything flowing again, because I can’t draw. I’m a horrible drawer. I don’t know how I’ve made it through art school being such a shitty drawer.”

Self-deprecation aside, Curti didn’t really pour any conceptual ideas into the piece when she made it, “but then once I looked at it I felt like it was kind of charged.” She recalls that the ships were British, and the floating monks and the crowd of people were from a Chinese history book (the mob was focussed on some sort of explosion before being cut out). Along with the floating monks, these ingredients resulted in a “weird religious political thing all smushed into one piece.”

The smush obviously appealed to Treacher, as did the conflicted mood. “I love the people’s backs at the forefront, the crowds of Asian immigrants,” says Treacher. “I like the very earthy colour tones, I like the wood texture. I also like the sea and ship imagery — I’ve written a lot about the ocean and homecoming. It just had this real Vancouver Island kind of vibe to it too, which is where I’m from. It just seemed perfect.” 

The piece also fit well with the songs he’d written. “I think it’s the darkest cover we’ve had so far, and that connects well with the lyrics, which are also darker and spookier, and a bit more depressing.” (Asked about the darkness in his songwriting, Treacher says: “I don’t have much control over what comes out, it just kind of comes out and you look at it after and go, ‘Oh man, what was wrong with me during those last two years? Why did I write those songs? Why did they come out that way?’ I don’t know.”)

Instinct obviously had a big stake in the way Landmark's packaging art was chosen. Its other aesthetic lynchpins are tied to a couple of Apollo Ghosts' landmark bands. “Our band are big fans of Guided by Voices, and Amanda's piece had that sort of Bob Pollard collage vibe to it,” says Treacher. For the record's interior packaging art, they paid a more overt homage to another lean, mean American punk band that they love. “It might not sound like it when you hear our music, but live we're a lot more raunchy and brash, and we're really tight with the punk scene in Vancouver,” explains Treacher. “We wanted to acknowledge our punk rock roots, so we wanted an insert that was kind of like the photo collage from Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen.”

Treacher enlisted his friend Melanie Coles, an Emily Carr undergrad, to produce the packaging layouts (she came up with the handwritten typeface) and the interior designs. “I have no aesthetic sense at all,” says Treacher, “so I trusted her to pick the best photos and arrange them in this kind of weird, punk rock Xeroxed way, and use a typewriter for the liner notes and stuff, and so that’s what she did.”

Oddly enough, this kind of collaborative commissioning process is maybe the only similarity that Landmark bears to the bright, fantastical imagery on Apollo Ghosts’ previous record, Mount Benson. “Benson was more of a commissioning,” says Treacher. “My friend Michelle Vulama is a painter, she paints rock, and the album was about the biggest rock that I know in my hometown, so that was an easy sell. I told her roughly the kind of scene that I wanted, and she provided us with the front and back cover. That was a bit more direct, whereas this one just kind of came to us.”

Salted Meat (2010) | oil and acrylic on board, 58” x 54”

If a reliance on impulse and an appreciation for murkiness are the threads that knit Landmark's words and pictures together, Treacher inadvertently found a near-perfect co-conspirator in Amanda Curti.

Curti mostly does painting (especially large-scale oil pieces), printmaking and animation. She’s certainly found a sweet niche back east: “Sackville kind of caters to musicians and artists. I have a studio that costs me $100 a month, which is amazing. I’ve lived in Windsor and London, Ontario, and you couldn’t even find a studio. Plus, I can use the printmaking studio at school because the teachers are very nice. And Struts is a great place that puts up a lot of student art.”

While this nourishing atmosphere has allowed Curti’s art practice to thrive, her creative roots are still prominently displayed (to bands coming through town, anyway) at her house in Sackville. “For a long time I was working on art about my family, because I’m Italian, and they’re crazy, and they were just the most interesting people around me,” explains Curti. “So I have a lot of family portraits.” 

The smallest one is about 4 feet by 3 ½ feet and the largest 12 feet by 8 feet — a bathtub scene that Curti describes below, along with a couple of others: “I painted a picture of my Nona in a cantina with a bunch of salamis hanging from the ceiling around her and a big fur hat on. I have another one of my brother and my cousin scrubbing each other’s feet in a bathtub – which isn’t made from my head, I actually walked into the bathroom one night and they were having a competition to see whose feet they could get the cleanest, so I went and got my camera and took a picture of that and painted it. And I have two portraits that go together of my cousin Theo and her brother Xavier, and they’re screaming at each other — they were having a fight. So I took a picture and painted it. The two paintings face each other, and it just looks like they’re screaming back and forth.” (Unfortunately — or, fortunately, depending on your disposition — you’d have to visit Sackville to catch a glimpse of Curti’s family portraits.)  

Untitled (2010) | mixed media on board, 36” x 54”

Curti generally works from her photographs, and her desire to crack the limitations of that method led her into some truly wacky territory during the last few years. “When I go to take pictures of people they always pose, even if they’re not trying to,” says Curti. “I wanted to get a true picture of someone’s face without them being able to pose, and the only two situations I could think of to capture this were either a sneeze or an orgasm, because with those two things, you can’t control what’s going on with your face. I thought I’d take the more challenging road and do the orgasm.”

Okay, so the wackiness (goofy pun intended) was essentially self-inflicted. Curti’s goal was to make large-scale portraits of people with raw facial expressions, in this case 5-foot-by-4-foot canvases of her subject’s faces, maybe with a couple of inches of shoulder. The tricky part would be coercing and convincing a bunch of friends and acquaintances to masturbate in close enough proximity so that Curti could capture their face at the money shot moment. (Actually, the trickiest part was adapting to what happened after everyone was dressed again.)  

So that nothing is misconstrued, Curti should explain her process: “Most of them were taken in a bed. My bed. I would bring people back to my house and give them anything that they needed — because I facilitate the masturbation, right? So I would give them a computer if they needed porn or anything like that, and I supplied fresh towels, lubrication and vibrators. Most of the people I took pictures of, I knew, so I was alright with them doing that. And either I would stay in the room with them while they did it or lay next to them, or I’d stand outside the room, and when they were about to cum they’d call me. And I was like, ‘At least give me five seconds,’ so they’re like, ‘Okay,’ and then I’d hear them scream at me and I’d run into the bedroom and jump on top of them with my camera, taking pictures on rapid fire until they were finished cumming.” 

Yes, sometimes there was a little awkwardness. But it also spawned great anecdotes like this one: “There was one person — he’s in a band, but I’m not gonna say names — and there were 13 people in the house, and he was like ‘I’m totally into it, but there’s too many people here.’ So I set up a tent in the backyard. I called it the masturbatorium. He went into the tent and I kinda walked around my backyard smoking a cigarette until I heard him go, ‘Curti, come here!” And then I crawled into the tent and straddled him and took my picture. And that’s how most of ‘em went — I’d just wait for them to call me and then I’d come in like a ninja and take their picture.” 

Untitled (2006) | oil, acrylic, acetate and ink on board, 14” x 11”

As you might expect, things got complicated. Curti spent a couple of years before she came to Mount Allison sussing out candidates, and ended up with nine photographs of people to paint. Apparently the paintings didn’t get a good response when people began learning what the project was, and some dismissed it as shock art. To which Curti says: “There’s no nudity, I don’t put a title on them, and nobody would know who they actually are.”

Curti wasn’t really phased by this reaction, but she does say she’s had to take a step back from the project to reevaluate it. “I kinda went crazy ‘cause once people knew what I was doing, I was getting bombarded with people who wanted to get their pictures taken. In my studio I’ve turned all the paintings around so that people can’t see them when they look in the window.” 

Likewise, the interactions with her portrait subjects become a bit of a handful. “That wall of awkwardness when you first meet a person, it goes right out the window when your first conversation is about this project,” says Curti. “Anything goes after that. It was like being best friends on high speed. You kind of just bypass all the bullshit and then all of a sudden they wanna tell you their deepest, darkest secrets. And then after I got the photos of some people, it was almost like I was dating them. I had this somewhat sexual relationship with them because I saw them at one of their most vulnerable moments. All of a sudden I’ve got like six, seven, eight people calling me and wanting to tell me all these things. I was like, ‘Holy fuck, I have seven girlfriends and five boyfriends, plus the person that I’ve actually been with for the last six years, and it’s fucking crazy and I need to relax for a minute. It was too much.”

More importantly, Curti began feeling like the work she was producing wasn’t quite right. “These paintings weren’t really translating the whole process of getting these photos, which was more interesting. You know, just going around telling people about this project, and then you mention masturbation and that you’re okay with it, and people are suddenly talking to you about the craziest shit you could possibly think of, because they feel comfortable. That idea was more interesting than the paintings.”

Augment (2010) | oil on canvas, 48” x 36”

Curti decided to experiment with creating a visual experience of an orgasm, or at least the fantasy reel that goes into one. “I went back to someone I’d done a painting of and took a video of her getting into her bed, and shots of her toes and her hands crinkling, and then it zooms into her mouth,” says Curti. She then collaborated with her subject to develop the rest of the piece’s content: “She told me what she sees and feels when she has an orgasm, and that’s what I tried to capture.” So Curti took the footage she had shot and rotoscoped it by hand, and then built the cerebral sequence with a peg board and animation paper, drawing and tracing over and over again to flesh out the fantasy.

Encouraged by her professors at Mount Allison, Curti has plans to evolve the unnamed masturbation project by collecting more camera footage and creating more animation. (She’s still looking for a good name, so fire away with suggestions.) In the nearer term, she’s working on another project that you can see if you happen to be making your way to Sappyfest this year (August 3rd to 5th, 2012). Hatched “just for fun because school is done for summer,” and in homage to one of her icons, Curti and two other local artists are putting together a tribute exhibit to commemorate their love of filmmaker John Waters. 

The two other artists are Nick Wilson — a fellow Mount Allison student who works in sculpture — and Joe Chamandy — who does “amazing drawings” and is also plays in a band called Astral Gunk. They’ve agreed that they’re all going to create some sort of flamingos to put up, and they’re also each creating something else, which they’ve been keeping a secret from one another until Sappyfest, when the show will be up at Little Armadillo on Lorne St. in Sackville. Curti will admit that she’s doing “large-scale paintings of Divine and John Waters as religious figures,” but not much else. 

Whatever Curti puts on those walls, bet on it being laced with strange, playful and unbridled impulses. 

Untitled (2012) | silkscreen on paper, 9” x 28”

All paintings by Amanda Curti. LP inner sleeve by Melanie Coles. Story by Eric Rumble. Buy Landmark from the Apollo Ghosts bandcamp page

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PS: Sorry about the five-month gap between posts, folks. I landed a new full-time gig in January, and the adjustment period has been a bitch. Things are starting to even out now, and I’ll be producing three more record art pieces ASAP this summer: 

1] A brief-ish history of The Famines' aesthetic, as crafted (and described) by the methodically enthralling Raymond Biesinger

2] The scoop on Cadence Weapon’s Hope In Dirt City cover image, created by Jody Zinner.

3] Origin stories for some of the strange creatures that adorn Clinton St. John’s Storied Hearts and the Three Assimilations.

Stay tuned!

Eric

Feb 08

Grimes + Claire Boucher = Visions’ ferociously playful head spaces

Grimes: Visions [Jan/2012] — CLAIRE BOUCHER SAYS she wanted the cover of her 3rd full-length Grimes recording to be “something very beautiful, and also very assaulting and violent, like the music.” She wanted the image to be zoomable — “like a Bosch painting” — and very movement-oriented. More than anything else, though, both the songs and their packaging had to be absolutely sincere. 

Boucher can certainly be candid about what she was going for musically. “I wanted to make something that reads like a symphony,” she explains. “It arches — it begins in a sort of meek but inspired way, becomes very powerful, and then becomes very sad and lonely. I want people to enjoy themselves when they listen to it, but in the end feel very distant.”

And the drawing she made for the cover definitely mines one of her main creative veins: an affinity for Mesoamerican style. “When I went to Mexico, I was actually really inspired by a lot of Aztec art. I went to the museum of anthropology and Teotihuacan. It was all so horrifying and elaborate. More similar to my own art than a lot of stuff I’ve seen, even just structurally, because they use lots of little images of screaming faces and strange patterns to make big elaborate pieces.” 

At the same time, Boucher says that “generally when I draw there is no concept, it’s just free form, I always improvise in whatever way feels best and that’s what I get.” Which sounds sort of like how she makes music too, having described a locked-in-her-bedroom recording process for Visions that involved tinkering and experimenting her way into the depths of sleep and natural-light depravation, self-isolating through the foggy and euphoric layers of her own songs.

Boucher says she usually draws during movie marathons, and that the Visions cover image was hatched with India ink, watercolour paper and “Ghost in the Shell II night, so I was thinking a lot about death and shit,” she says. “I do visual art in the same manner as music in that it’s intensive, but it’s not private at all. The album cover image took about 16 hours, I did it over two days. But it’s weird because I was sitting in my friend’s living room the whole time, so it was a much more social experience and there was a lot of feedback from my friends, and it was a bit different in that regard. At this point there is way less pressure for me to make visual art, so I only really do it out of love, whereas music has deadlines and pressures and stuff, so it’s not as free anymore. It used to be the opposite.”

This is probably why the prevailing influence on the Visions pieces is very personal — “my symbols,” Boucher calls them: the penetrating eyes (or lack thereof), the writhing textures, a weeping alien, the slanted hearts, flush roses and cushy bows, which apparently she’s been drawing since high school. “The eyeball was my first symbol and I use it in lots of ways all the time, but I also really like faces without eyes — which is why I’m attracted to skulls a lot. The alien head is my newest symbol. I have a tattoo of it now on my hand. It’s crying cuz, I dunno, I was sad at the time.”

Whatever mindset sparked the details, Boucher’s visuals are spiked with the same playful streak as her songwriting. The horizontal line of script atop Grimes on the cover says “I love” in Russian, and the two vertical lines are written in a conjured foreign tongue. “I’ve always been into fake writing on my art, particularly things that look kind of Japanese, because I love manga and anime poster art a lot,” she says. 

Jasper Baydala, who helped Boucher produce the packaging layout, added a few more hints of mischief. The pink block on the right side is actually the word Grimes “jokingly” copied and pasted over and over and over again — “We both thought that it looked good so we left it,” explains Baydala. (He also alludes, also jokingly, to the roots of that particular idea, apparently inspired by sharing a living space with Arbutus Records’ honcho Sebastian Cowan: “I hear the word ‘Grimes’ hundreds of times per day.”) 

Just as he did while producing the layouts for all of the Arbutus’ 2011 releases, Baydala hid a very small Ninja Turtle on the Visions packaging. And then there’s the giant pink alien head. Boucher had wanted to base her design on “another album cover that she liked, and we arranged the elements of her album cover to roughly match it.” For one of her departure points from aping this unnamed record (Baydala’s lips are sealed), Boucher suggested an alien head. A large-filter Google search quickly brought up the original alien head image, created by a then-anonymous artist, “who turned out to be a middle-aged man in Mississauga named Mark Khair, who makes alien heads in his spare time,” explains Baydala. “He was excited that we used it. It is a good alien head. I especially like that when we inflated it to put it on the back of the record, it became pixelated — that is the modern version of grain.”

Baydala says his favourite part of the Visions artwork is the fact that Khair’s alien head is so big on the back of the vinyl. “That is fantastic. It is hard to get away with something like that, and in the future Claire will not be able to get away with anything like that.” No matter how Boucher’s aesthetic ends up being affected by her popularity, Baydala puts her DIY sensibility nicely into context when he mentions the green bevelled lines he added to the packaging design. “I like the bevel because it is just like Photoshop. Maybe Grimes is distinctly Garageband.”

That said, Boucher’s Visions illustrations also show her visual art arsenal shifting to much the same trajectory as her music — embracing more risk, trusting her instincts, filling out the space of her canvases with idiosyncratic tangents. When she painted the piece that became the cover of 2009’s excellent Geidi Primes record, Boucher was just getting warmed up. “That was the first painting I ever really made, and one of my first ‘eyeball’ pieces, so it was sort of a revelatory experience,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh shit, art is way better if you use something besides a mechanical pencil!’ Plus, I realized that drawing on big paper is way more enjoyable and less tedious, and it looks better in real life.”

Even as her implements and materials evolve, thankfully it sounds like Boucher can’t help but maintain a mind-gripping art practice: “I remember not doing a lot of other important things in favour of doing that painting.” 

Images by Claire Boucher. Story by Eric Rumble. Buy Visions from Arbutus Records.