From Cold Chisel to Kisschasy, and everyone in between, Debaser has been specialising in creative direction for the music industry for almost a decade.
Interview with: Aaron Hayward and David Homer
Debaser’s client list reads like a who’s-who of the Australian music industry. What percentage of your work is music related, and how did the music focus come about?
Music makes up about 70 percent of our work. We are both music nerds and originally met while working as in-house art directors at a major label. Meeting a lot of artists and industry people at that stage was a great step in being able to set-up our own studio with a focus on music. Designing for music suits our style of working, it requires a totally different approach to each project and that is how we like to work. It also, on the good projects, allows a lot more freedom to experiment and attempt new ideas. Neither of us were ever very good at corporate or even more commercial-style work, so this area seemed to be a good fit. The last few years has seen a bit of change in our work, with a lot more illustration. We have a New York-based agent for illustration and through them we get a lot of projects for editorial work, as well as quite a lot for the advertising industry. We’ve also just signed with new Sydney agency, The Drawing Arm, to pursue more of that type of work in Australia.
Has the iTunes generation and the way many albums are now consumed affected the way you approach designing an album cover?
It hasn’t really impacted on us yet and I’m not sure it will. An album cover is not simply what you see on the actual product, whether that be in digital or physical form. It spans the entire presence of the album, from advertising, posters, web and merchandise. It becomes the face of the record in many more ways than just iTunes. The internet especially requires a visual representation of a band or musicians, and in many ways that allows the imagery to be expanded in ways that the simple album cover can’t do. We are also seeing a lot more niche physical products being created that require great imagery. We are doing more vinyl issues now than we have ever done and this is a really great phenomenon. We’ve always loved artwork on 12-inch vinyl, and the fact that we get to do so much of it these days is really satisfying. Collector box-sets are becoming very popular now as well. With the disposability of digital music now, people are coming back to wanting to have something tangible that they can hold, rather than just another mp3 file in iTunes. So in many ways the actual method of delivering the product has changed, but we don’t think that the process of creating an image for a band will ever change. If you connect with a band, you very often connect with the visual aesthetic of the band also, and that’s kind of where we come in.
Debaser’s extensive catalogue of album covers are designed using a broad mixture of mediums. How do you decide which medium(s) to use for any particular job?
Musicians (the good ones anyway) are unique, they have a unique sound and approach, so their aesthetic also needs to be unique. Making that decision almost always comes from the idea at its most basic. That little germ of an idea will usually dictate the approach we need to take. Some are very obvious, requiring photography or typography, but others require some experimentation with different tactics, sometimes ending up being anything from sculptural to oil painting to traditional pen and ink illustration. We’ve had a project before where we did a quick little sketch to pitch our idea for a big, expensive photo shoot, but the band liked the little sketch so much that it became the final cover and we didn’t even need to do the shoot. Sometimes these happy little accidents dictate what we end up doing. We really try not to have to many preconceptions or rules and find that working with a loose approach usually gets the best results.
You’ve won three ARIA awards for Best Cover Art and have been nominated for many more. What does winning mean to you, and why do you think your work resonates so well with the nomiation committee?
Empire of the Sun has been a good project for us, we also won the ANNDAS award from London for it, and it very much lifted our profile internationally because the album was such a global hit. I’m not sure why the committee likes our work, but a big part of it is simply getting to work on the big albums. The music industry in Australia is relatively small and there are only a limited number of high profile records made each year. Getting to the point where we get to work on some of those releases allows us to get our work in front of people. Having the industry recognise the work that we produce is nice, but our real aim is to consistently produce work that we can be proud of.
How did your studio name come about?
That’s easy. We stole it. The Pixies is one of the bands that we both really love and after a few months of searching for a studio name, Debaser just jumped out. We went through a bunch of absolutely terrible names before we finally stumbled on that one. It’s also nice that we have a ready- made studio theme song.
What is the culture like at Debaser? Do you have any particular approaches to how the studio is run?
From the outset we wanted to ensure the studio kept a relaxed approach. We had both worked in a big studio before and with that size comes a lot of things like office politics, time-sheets and hierarchies. We never wanted any of that, we are still very small and niche and both firmly believe that this environment suits our style of work and allows for creativity. We all do everything here, from setting up the big photo shoots to doing the smallest street press ads. We’re designers and illustrators first and foremost, and doing everything is all part of the gig.
What are the future plans for the studio?
With our illustration work going so well, we’d like to continue expanding that side of things. We have no plans to grow the studio in terms of size, but want to expand our client base to include more international clients, both music based and outside of music. There’s so much cool stuff happening now that it’s a really exciting time to be doing this.
desktop asked Debaser to select a few of their favourite projects from the past few years:
No Plans, 2012
Client: Warner Music Australia
We had worked with Cold Chisel putting together their ‘Best Of’ artwork last year. After this, the band asked us to create the artwork for their first studio album in 14 years. Working with such a legendary band as Chisel was, at first, a pretty daunting experience, as their covers have become such iconic images in Australian music. The title we were given was No Plans and they wanted something that told the story of a man’s revolt on the world around him. We pitched several concepts, but Chisel wanted to explore two distinct ideas, the first was inspired by the Jeffrey Smart Cahill Expressway painting; the other was one of a group of drone-like businessmen rushing to work. We enlisted one of our favourite photographers, Steve Baccon, to help shoot both ideas. Aaron, dressed as a 1940s businessman, set out with Steve in the early hours of the morning to shoot the empty Cahill Expressway and Harbour Tunnel. We were hoping to capture an empty timeless landscape containing a solitary figure (a David Lynch feel). Heavily inspired by Hipgnosis, we then moved into our studio to shoot the multiple images of the businessmen in order to layer together the other idea. In the end, the band loved both ideas. Chisel went with the Cahill Expressway imagery, but used the multiple businessmen as a spread inside the booklet artwork.
United Paper People, 2005
Client: EMI Music Australia
“Can you make it look like it doesn’t sound?” This grammatically confusing, slightly obtuse question from the band was the entire brief for this project. To date, it’s still one of the most interesting briefs we’ve received and one that gave us the scope and width to create one of our favourite album packages. The ‘branding’ we created for this record was based almost entirely on the textured oil paintings we created. Once we had decided on this style, we were free to make a series of images, which, apart from the style and mood, were very different in content. The resulting images formed the concept and personality for the complete lifespan of the project, from the 12-page booklet to each one of the four single releases. Once it came to tour posters, however, we stripped it back to bare bones, allowing for the poster art to be simpler and more immediate.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN
Walking On a Dream, 2009
Client: EMI Music Australia
Without a doubt, one our favourite and longest running projects to date. Being fans of both Pnau and The Sleepy Jackson, we were excited to work on this highly anticipated record. We were first approached to just make a poster, and working with Luke [Steele] and Nick [Littlemore], we developed a poster inspired by old sci-fi film posters. I think we all realised pretty quickly that this concept was the right one for the entire project, so we developed the poster into the final album cover. The costuming and styling were so great that we pitched an idea that we wouldn’t use any standard promo shots for press, but that we would illustrate each and every image of the band that went to media. We didn’t really realise how many we would require and ended up doing over 45 individual illustrations. For some, photos were supplied, but for many, we would have to shoot the band ourselves and illustrate from there. We did illustrations for a huge range of international magazines, from NME and Dazed & Confused, to Rolling Stone. We also did a beautiful vinyl box-set with a 3D lenticular cover, and a 38-page vinyl sized booklet, complete with hyper-gloss stock and gold foiling. We love this project. The band were great to work with, such creative guys who gave us full scope to do our thing. We’ve also had quite a few international projects come into our studio on the back of this.
Falling & Flying, 2011
EMI Music Australia
EMI contacted us to work on a project for a new MC called 360. The album was titled Falling & Flying, so they wanted 360 to be standing in a room containing upside down objects. Based on this, we sketched up a cover that had him standing in front of a window with a plane flying upside down. In the foreground were crates of records and a rug beginning to lift off the ground. We wanted to expand this idea further in the booklet, with 360 in other rooms where gravity was askew. Having found a great old warehouse apartment, we enlisted photographer Alex Weltlinger to shoot the images, giving him some of our favourite old hip-hop references. A day was spent creating several set-ups of 360 hanging within the space containing flying objects.
Vodka & Ayahuasca, 2012
Client: Decon Records
We were contacted by New York hip-hop label Decon to create work for the very intense and very awesome Gangrene. These guys don’t get played on radio; their sound is brash, tight and more than a little trippy. We created a series of images inspired by 60s psychedelia, but with a more modern spin and a harder edge. These guys were amazing to work with – they made no silly little changes for the sake of it. If they liked something, they went with it. We produced a six-panel digipack with a foldout poster style booklet. We also created a three-colour backlight poster on thick velvet-like stock, which glows in the dark and will hopefully give you nightmares… Check these guys out, their videos are just as intense as their sound, and everyone from the band and the label are cool as shit.
All images copyright Debaser.
Thumbnail image: Empire of the Sun, Walking on a Dream, 2009.
From desktop magazine.