Pacifica is the band’s most recent release, and here designer Jonathan Zawada shares the symbolic meaning behind the Australian “graphic microcosm” explored in Pacifica’s artwork, which draws upon our history, cultural heritage, and unique environment. Zawada also considers the Australian identity, possible meanings behind The Presets accidental trilogy, and contemplates where the collaboration might be headed next. Keep an eye out for the November issue of Desktop too, which will feature an in-depth look at the 3D design and lenticular printing processes featured in the Pacifica deluxe box set.
Again, I’m interested to hear about what was happening for you personally and professionally between albums. What were you up to between Apocalypso and Pacifica?
There was a long time between those two albums and a lot has changed for me. I’m now living in Los Angeles and focusing almost entirely on my art practice. I’ve scaled back my design work a lot so I don’t have the design studio set up here that I did back in Australia. Instead I’m working on a desk in a corner of the livingroom. I also had a baby – actually, my wife went into labour (5 weeks ahead of schedule) on the same night that we had a big Skype discussion with the band’s manager about the deluxe package, and I ended up having to produce a lot of the art for the release in that first week where I was getting by on one hour of sleep at a time.
How about for The Presets?
I think an awful lot has changed for them too. They both have kids now and have slightly different priorities in their lives I guess. Though I have to say that from where I stand they haven’t changed a whole lot about how they approach The Presets and what their vision is for it.
Now that there are three albums which share some similar visual cues, one can’t help but make connections and try and draw out a narrative thread through it all. I might be reading too much in to it, but I see a little story of life (Beams), death (Apocalypso) and rebirth (Pacifica) emerging. It’s also interesting to see that the construction of the covers has gone from “real-life” photography, to a composited image, to a completely computer generated one. Is there a story that you’ve built into these covers by design, or perhaps one that has emerged incidentally for you?
I like that progression! None of that was intentional, it has definitely all happened by accident but I think in so far as the art reflects the general feeling of the albums that summation probably pretty much reflects the feelings of the whole project. Looking back at it, I think Beams definitely has a sense of a band doing things their own way and with their own vision. A combination of excitement and humbleness, and some apprehensive first steps. The same goes for me and my part really. Apocalypso, as a sophomore release, was replete with paranoia and pressure of living up to expectations while the third comes with a certain lightness and freedom from all that pressure where – to me anyway, they’ve earned the right to some liberty with it all.
Can you talk me through the symbolism behind Pacifica and its singles?
Pacifica was the first time I’d heard the album before designing the artwork so I had some pretty concrete ideas about what I thought the music was about. There are definite Australian cultural themes to it all and I wanted to represent that in the cover by creating a kind of visual metaphor for Australia. Kim and Julian are isolated, surrounded on all sides by sea. Kim’s clothes refer to white sandy beaches while Julian’s to the subtropical lushness of the coast, where we all grew up. Different coasts but the same sort of environs. The golden handcuff that binds them is a symbol for Australia’s convict history and its gold-mining past, but also symbolises the sort of push/pull relationship that I think Australians have with the place. Its wonderful, but its also very limiting. The single for Youth in Trouble is a pretty simple play on the handcuffs making a smiley face – an icon of rave culture. Ghosts is also a pretty straightforward visual simile, the lone white cloud as a ghost on the horizon and also refers to the line “Ghosts in heaven”. Promises features a sort of sand-monument, and references that thing you do as a kid when you cross your fingers when you promise something to excuse yourself from keeping the promise. Finally, Fall refers back to handcuffs with the key, the cloth that concealed them being pulled away to reveal it.
What about the production for this one? How did you go about creating the artwork?
Initially I really wanted to shoot this on location at a salt lake in South Australia but budgets – and the fact that I’m in LA – made that impossible. The alternative approach, which I now feel has yeilded a much more interesting result, was that we ended up getting Kim and Julian full-body 3D scanned, in their outfits and in the exact positions needed for the cover composition. I watched on via Skype as they were individually scanned, having remembered the exact positions that their bodies needed to be in when they were posed together in front of their end of the Skype conversation. They were also then photographed from all sides so that the clever people who did the scanning could also create the texture maps for the 3D models. I was then provided with the models, which I then combined them and added in the hand-cuffs. I then brought them into a different 3D program to model the oceanscape and configure the lighting and camera. Once I settled on the right combination of all of those elements I output the final high res renders in different layers, applied the distortions in Photoshop, and comped the whole thing back together. This process was repeated for the back cover and other pack elements.
There is a subtle, quite unique, but unmistakable sense of “Australian-ness” to The Presets music which I think is reflected in all their covers. This quality is particularly evident in Pacifica. What does the Australian identity mean to you, and what are the qualities that a designer or artist can draw upon to create uniquely Australian work?
I’m not sure, I don’t think it can really be a conscious process to try to design “Australian”. I think it just comes out when you don’t try to design “Swiss”, or “Dutch” or “American”. For me it comes down to having a slightly laid back approach. Australians don’t tend to hold anything in much reverence and I think that can translate into a very healthy – and unique – way of approaching design. We don’t have the kinds of well defined social hierarchies that are present elsewhere and I think that allows for a kind of total freedom in our use of visual languages that couldn’t come from anywhere else in the world.
Obviously it’s way too early to talk about the future, but do you have thoughts about where your relationship with the band might head next? Have there been any dead-ends with designs in the past that you’re interested in exploring? I suppose my question boils down to wondering if there is still life in this collaboration, and in particular the visual format of the Presets covers that we’ve all come to know and love?
I haven’t thought about it at all! Fortunately, I guess, there haven’t been any dead-ends in our relationship, everything we’ve worked on together has come to fruition. If they’ll have me again, I’d love to work with them on their next release. The one thing I’ve always loved about working with them is that I never feel apprehensive about what I’m going to come up with. I’m always confident that when the time comes we’ll all be on the same page that whatever needs to be developed will come about in a relaxed and organic fashion.
With nearly a decade past, 3 album covers, multiple singles, remixes, tours, births, deaths, marriages, and everything else that’s happened – what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learnt from your experiences of working with The Presets?
I’ve learnt from them to have confidence in what you’re doing, to push past your doubts and not to get caught up in producing what you think people expect from you, just because you’ve had success with that approach in the past.