Jonathan Zawada has been working with The Presets for the better part of the last decade. It’s a collaboration that has yielded three of the best and most iconic Australian album covers in Beams, Apocalypso and the band’s most recent release Pacifica. This week we’re joined by Zawada, who will take us on a journey back through the design process of the band’s discography.
These covers are rich in symbolism and all contain their own unique story. Personally I find them all deeply fascinating, and Zawada’s insights provide a great opportunity to learn not only more about the band, but about long-term design collaborations. Today we’ll be looking at the influences behind the design of band’s early EPs, as well as the production of the artwork for Beams – which effectively provides the visual framework for all following releases.
I suppose we should start right at the beginning. How did you come to work with The Presets, and what was the first thing you designed for them?
I had met them a few times socially and I actually designed a website for the band they were in prior to The Presets, which was called Prop. After asking a bunch of their other designer friends to come up with ideas for their first EP Blow Up and not being happy with the results, they eventually ran out of options and very casually asked if I wanted to have a go at it.
From the outset, your designs for The Presets were not the typical response to the type of music they were producing. The band logo in particular seems to draw inspiration by 70’s rock and the illustrations for the Blow Up EP feature creepy fluorescent illustrations that evoke old children’s books. What did those initial conversations about design direction involve?
That mix of bright colours mixed with hard black was somewhat inspired by a description of The Presets music that a friend gave me. I hadn’t heard any of it at the time myself, but this friend described it to me as “dark disco”. I did know that it was electronic music, which I was very familiar with. I had grown up listening to a lot of Warp artists and always loved the design that The Designers Republic did there, but I made the very conscious decision that my designs should be very different and should be approached almost like one would approach a pop artist. Hence stealing the KISS logo font and using very concrete, graphic imagery.
The second EP, Girl and the Sea, has a relatively simple looking cover but features some strangely incongruous imagery. What’s the meaning behind it all?
That was a really strange process actually. Both of the guys had described the feeling of the music on the EP in totally contradictory ways. One said it was really beautiful and wistful, while the other said it was much harder and more aggressive. The process was actually a real nightmare as I couldn’t get them to agree on anything. They liked the general idea of my first proposal – a juxtaposition of stock photography – but it took a long process of narrowing down about 20 or 30 preselected images and then each of us individually creating a shortlist of our favourites. I then took these selections and made up about 8 or so different possible combinations. Oddly they both picked the same composition for the final cover, but each of them also specified a second choice and a “definitely NOT this one” choice. It turned out that one’s second choice was the other’s “definitely NOT this one” and vice-versa.
There’s definitely a sense of refinement between the look of those early EPs and the debut album Beams. What was happening in that period for you and the band, and what were the particular forces that started shaping the look of that cover?
The rough idea for the Beams cover was actually the first thing I presented for The Girl and the Sea. Everyone liked it but thought it was best reserved to explore fully when we had a better budget, which was very wise as I actually ended up having to spend some of my own money to get it done. I don’t remember too much of what was going on for us all at the time, although I do remember visiting them in the studio a couple of times during its production and being quite excited about the whole thing. I think they had begun to have a little success with The Girl and the Sea and I think they were still in the process of figuring out exactly what The Presets was. I had been working more and more with Modular since Blow Up, so I think I was also becoming a little more confident with the whole relationship too.
When Beams came out I remember thinking how startlingly unique, peculiar, and intriguing it looked, yet there was a sense of familiarity and nostalgia to it all. What was the concept behind the cover and how was it developed?
At the time I was really interested in the album cover work of Hipgnosis and that definitely informed my approach. Again, it was really a continuation of my attempt to treat an electronic music act like a pop act – in it’s own unique way of course. I couldn’t recall many other electronic acts that put themselves on the cover of their album at the time, it just wasn’t part of the visual language of the genre. Kim made a comment that he wanted the cover to be able to sit next to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and not look out of place, which really struck a chord with me. It was also heavily influenced by Jean-Paul Goude’s Island Life cover for Grace Jones. Ultimately I wanted it to be like a pop album portrait but made in a sort of DIY way that connected you to the band rather than making them distant and untouchable. In that sense I suppose it actually was an attempt to subvert the standard pop cover while still embracing some of the conventions. In terms of the process I planned pretty much everything out in advance, including drawing sketches and figuring out how alternatives could be shot for the rest of the packaging. The photographers, Lyn Balzer and Anthony Perkins are old friends and I was really excited to get to work with them as I knew they’d understand what I was after. They were the only people I’d trust to shoot it on film and the right feeling from it.
Can you talk me through the symbolism behind some of the objects that feature on the cover?
They all reference aspects of the preceeding artwork and were sort of an attempt to sum up The Presets “universe” as it were. The cover features things like a taxidermy rat, a model of a trans-am, and a terminator skull which all link to the Blow Up EP illustrations. I made a mexican wrestler out of an Action Man doll and the bonsai represents the forest from the Girl and the Sea art. I had done a t-shirt print of a hissing cat for them, so there’s a cat on Jules’ lap. The heliotrope was indicative of circadian rhythms which in my mind was connected to dance music, and the candle was there as I always liked the idea that a candle in a portrait represented the presence of God – not that I believe in it. I remember I initially had a book of album covers sitting under the skull but at the last minute Jules swapped it out for something he said had informed the lyrics which I think was definitely for the best.
The remix EP Resets features a slightly reworked version of the Beams cover, which I’m assuming was taken from one of those alternative shots. What made the actual Beams cover work in comparison to these other options?
Yeah, we took a few variations of the cover image, mostly different takes on the way Kim and Jules were styled and what positions they were in. From memory it actually took a long time for everyone to agree on which image ended up getting used and at the time I think one of the members of the band was actually not all that happy with the final decision. I’m not exactly sure why the one we went with was the best, I think it probably simply comes down to the extra amount of colour created by Kim’s leather jacket!
Having a visual to associate with music can have a transformative effect on listening. Separately the two can have a particular impact, but combined, one can’t help but make associations between them. Do you design with the intent to represent something in the music itself, or are you more interested in achieving a result that forces the listener to have a very unique and personal response?
I don’t think I had heard much of the music when I designed the Beams cover, for me it was more about representing the general feeling of the entity that is The Presets. I find that when I try to directly represent or be informed by the music the outcome can be quite narrow in scope. This is especially true in the case of The Presets. I’ve always wanted the artwork to add to and expand on the music in a way that creates a kind of mythological universe around them. Growing up in the age of CDs, the album cover was often the only insight into the world of the band for me and I really wanted to exploit that as much as I could.
Next Up: Apocalypso