Steven R Gilmore Interview
By: Dennis M. Kelly
DK: I would like to thank you for your time today and answering some questions for us, it is most appreciated! Your work is most impressive and I have always loved it since the early Skinny Puppy days. I have to say that I agree whole-heartedly with David J. Weissberg from Swindle Magazine when he said that you “single-handedly defined the look of industrial music during the mid to late 80’s, a trend that continues to this day.” How do you respond to a statement like that?
SRG: Although flattering, I don’t think I single-handedly defined the look of industrial music. My intention with design has always been to try and elevate my work to something that is a little more than simple packaging. When I first started creating album sleeves there weren’t a lot of designers I felt I could look up to in the same field other than Neville Brody (Fetish Records), Peter Saville (Factory Records) and Vaughan Oliver/Nigel Grierson (4AD), and I was very inspired by what they were doing with their respective record labels. They were creating their own look for the labels they were working for and that was something I wanted to emulate with Nettwerk Records.
DK: How much confidence did you have in your work at the time? Are you a perfectionist?
SRG: The early to late ’80s was a great period of creativity for me. Everything seemed so fresh and new. I came into design knowing nothing about it other than the desire to create. As a high school dropout I never had any type of training in the technical aspects of design so it was a huge and exciting learning curve for me.
And, yes, I am a perfectionist. Probably to a fault.
DK: You’ve been designing since the 70s, correct?
SRG: I wouldn’t say that I have been designing since the ’70s as it wasn’t until the ’80s that I really started to take it seriously. In the ’70s you could say that I was a “struggling artist” who did a few design jobs every now and again. My first design job was for a local club in Calgary, Alberta. I traded design work for food. After that, one thing led to another.
DK: Where did the love for art and design come from for you? Where did it all begin?
SRG: For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a painter. I saw a reproduction of Salvador Dali‘s painting “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” in my elementary school library and said to myself, “That’s what I want to do.” I had the chance to see the original painting when I was in London a few years ago. It was mind-boggling to finally see the actual painting that had so heavily influenced my life.
As for design, my working in that field came about because of necessity. I needed a way to make money to support myself while I pursued my art and it seemed like the most logical step. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I found it was as creatively fulfilling as painting.
Being a total novice when it came to design, I took it upon myself to try and learn as much about it as I could. One of my favorite album sleeve designs at the time (and still is) was Clock DVA’s “Thirst” by Neville Brody. There was something so new and different about that sleeve, so I tried to track down as much information as I could on Neville Brody and what made him tick. And trying to find out more about him led to more knowledge about design in general.
DK: According to a brief bio I came across online, your stint as a DJ at the Vancouver club Luv-a-Fair was your first introduction into the music scene and you also created your first album cover at that time. How did that come about?
SRG: DJing at the Luv-A-Fair was a very important part of my life and it helped introduce me to the inner workings of the music industry. It was the only venue in town that played alternative music so it gave me the opportunity to spin local acts such as Images In Vogue, 54-40, Moev, Grapes Of Wrath and, of course, Skinny Puppy. Besides the local student radio station, in a lot of cases, the Luv-A-Fair was the only place these kind of bands could get exposure in a public arena. And because Vancouver had such a tight-knit community, I usually ended up doing their albums covers as well.
While I was DJing I was also doing street posters for a local promoter, Perryscope Productions. They brought international “Post Punk” bands into Vancouver, such as The Cramps, The Stranglers, Bush Tetras, James White and the Blacks, Wall Of Voodoo, The Cure, Madness, The Specials, Echo And The Bunnymen, to name but a few. The pay wasn’t great but I did get to see and meet a number of bands I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. The Luv-A-Fair was originally a nightclub that only spun records, but because of my connections with Perryscope and the owner of the club we started having live bands play there as well.
It was through one of the agents/managers at Perryscope that I was commissioned to do my first album cover in 1981. It was for a band simply called “e” and the name of the album was “Levitation Syndrome”.
DK: Cool! What forms of media did you start working with and end up evolving with through the course of your career?
SRG: When I first started out in design everything was based around the traditional cut-and-paste technique. In other words, everything was drawn by hand, photographed with a PMT machine and pasted onto layers of acetate with various color callouts. I went through a lot of spray glue back then.
It wasn’t until the late ’80s that I purchased my first Mac. I had been working with a friend in San Francisco, Rex Ray, on a few projects and he was the person who introduced me to the world of “desktop publishing”. Not only could you do simple design on this newfangled machine but you could also do your own typesetting.
After having to pay for professional typesetting for several years I was blown away that I could finally do it myself. Unfortunately, in the early days there was still the limitation of having to output the file to black-and-white photographic paper and laying it out in the traditional cut-and-paste manner. It wasn’t until the Mac was capable of doing color separations that it truly started to shine.
You would think that the transition from traditional methods to a computer would be difficult, but most of the programs at the time were based on the techniques I was already familiar with so I found it quite painless and unbelievably liberating.
DK: It is truly amazing how computers have really enhanced our abilities to create and how true the tools are in achieving the effects you want. One of my personal favorite points about creating on computer is being able to create as many alternate versions of the same main work and being able to explore it more fully. Has every design been 100% your design? Or have you utilized other source images to create your designs?
SRG: I don’t believe that anything we do is ever 100% our own. We always carry at least a little of someone or something else with us. As long as it is not a blatant copyright infringement, anything is fair game when it comes to expressing yourself creatively. Nothing is original, it’s how you borrow that makes you unique. Or as T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
In the ’80s, I thoroughly enjoyed repurposing images by enlarging them so you could clearly see the source was either a newspaper or an old book, much in the same way as Andy Warhol appropriated images for his paintings. But at the same time I would also do most of the photography, painting or illustrations myself, as well. It really depended on the job at hand and what I felt like doing at the time.
I had an idea in mind a few years ago of creating this floating entity of hands and it wasn’t until I met my girlfriend, whose hands are beautiful, that I felt confident in creating it. Although the end result looks rather simple, the execution was actually quite complicated as we had to do three separate photo shoots of her hands to finally get what I wanted, and then I had to painstakingly combine all the shots in Photoshop.
After that it was down to where I wanted that entity to be floating. Ogre (Skinny Puppy vocalist) and I were both raised in Calgary, Alberta, so I thought it would be appropriate that the scenery reflect the cold, depressing winters there. Not having the budget to fly up to Canada in the middle of winter, I spent countless hours scouring several stock photography websites until I found something that would portray the background atmosphere I was looking for. I had no idea that bleak winter landscapes wouldn’t be a popular option.
DK: (laughs) The back lighting on that photo is pretty cool and the way you merged the hands reminds me a bit of J.K. Potter‘s work but has it’s own synergy that is, as always, uniquely yours.
SRG: I also enjoy working with artists whom I admire, such as Anthony Artiaga (Skinny Puppy), Camille Rose Garcia (Ohgr), Fredox (Skinny Puppy), Charles Burns (MC 900 Ft Jesus), and Manuel Ocampo (Skinny Puppy). It gives me a chance to think outside of my own box and work within the confines of their aesthetics.
DK: When designing, since you primarily seem to work with bands, do you let the music inspire the art or has (in some cases) the art inspired the music?
SRG: For the most part I prefer not to listen to the album when I first start on a project. I’m more interested in having a casual, friendly meeting with the band and hearing about what they would like the artwork to portray. There is always a fear in the back of my mind that if I don’t like the music then I won’t be able to give the project my 100%. But thankfully that hasn’t been the case so far.
DK: You’ve worked a lot with Skinny Puppy, one my personal favorite bands actually, Manufacture, Chris and Cosey, 900 MC Foot Jesus, Tear Garden and ohGr to name but a few band clients. Who else have you worked with in the music field?
SRG: The ones that come to mind off the top of my head are A Perfect Circle, Static-X, Iggy Pop and film composers such as Tyler Bates, Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore.
DK: In an interview we did with Iron Maiden’s former artist, Derek Riggs, he had mentioned he always tended to have short deadlines for his work. Have you also experienced short deadlines? Is that the norm for your industry?
SRG: Tight deadlines are not usually the norm with major labels as there is too much planning involved, but it does seem to be the norm with independent labels. Personally, I prefer tight deadlines as it doesn’t allow me too much time to think. Almost all the work I’m really proud of is the result of tight deadlines.
DK: I’ll admit, it can be dangerous to have too much time on a project and be a perfectionist and can see how the tight deadline can curb those tendencies. How much input does the client give verses allowing you your artistic liberties to freely design something along the lines (or theme) of the band or album name?
SRG: It depends on the band or the client. Skinny Puppy usually gives me wide creative freedom, which I’ve always been very grateful for, and other bands like to have a lot of say in their projects. Basically it comes down to budget. If you want to micromanage your project, then you have to financially factor that in because it usually takes up the time of a lot of people.
DK: Understandable. Tell me more about your involvements with the film, promotion and special effects companies that you’ve worked for. You’ve worked with some pretty major films, The Dark Knight, 300, Lord of the Rings, to name just a few. How did those come about?
SRG: My first foray into that field came about because of my longtime connection to one of the creative directors at Warner Bros., Stephen Walker. He thought I would be perfect for “The Lord Of The Rings” and then after working on that, one of the other creative directors, Ellen Wakayama, approached me to work on “The Dark Knight”.
My connection with Tyler Bates (“300” and “Watchmen” composer) goes back a long time as well. Not only is he a dear friend, but I did an album cover for his band “Pet” long before he got into scoring films.
DK: How different is it for you working with a film company verses band clients? Are there any additional people involved in the process? Is it more involved than band work?
SRG: There are several more people involved when working with movie-related projects because of the legalities involved. Not only does everything have to have creative approval by the director and the composer but everything also has to go through all the companies and various departments involved, such as editorial and legal. From a designer’s point of view it can be quite frustrating and daunting at times, but thankfully over the years I’ve learned to take it in stride. It is people simply doing their job.
DK: Your site is currently being redesigned, but you have a great portfolio of your work in PDF format. When will the new site go live?
SRG: For the time being, I’m just going to stick with being able to download a PDF of my work. A few months ago my main hard drive crashed and I lost about 80 hours of work I had done on the new site. It is going to take quite some time to rebuild everything again but I will persevere.
DK: I am sorry to hear you weren’t able to get that hard drive operational again, but yes, sometimes it is just better to move on than to keep trying to recover lost data. Well, I want to thank you very much for your time today, all the great work you’ve created over the years and I hope that it all goes well for you with the site.
To learn more about Steven, please visit his site at: www.srgdesign.com.
Or through his FaceBook page: www.facebook.com/steven.r.gilmore