Have you ever wondered what inspired the images on your favorite album covers? With Uncovered, we discuss the stories behind the artwork with the people who made them. This week, we talk with Travis Smith, the artist responsible for the cover of Anathema’s A Fine Day To Exit, as well as a long list of other albums.
A Fine Day To Exit found Anathema really embracing the prog rock side of them, and the album has a concept surrounding it. When you were approached about doing the cover, how much coaching was necessary in order to fit their concept?
Well, the main cover was directly from the band and Vincent (Cavanaugh, from the band) dictated most of it, actually. Some of the interior inside stuff came from my ideas, but I got to run with those as long as the guys felt it complimented the whole thing.
It’s an extremely detailed series of pieces here, starting with the cover which acts as a sort of gatefold image. What was the process of choosing what would be in the photograph – the materials on the dashboard, what the clothes-trail to the ocean would constitute, etc.? Also, the fold works in reverse so you see the left side before the right, folded into the booklet. Once you see the entire image, you’re given a lot more information. What was the process for deciding which elements would be shown first versus what would be seen once unfolded?
I’m not sure about some of it. I’m going from memory so some of the specifics are a bit blurry. As far as the clothes trail, I just walked down to the water tossing town the clothing in the order i would have taken it off on the way, I suppose. For the panels, I think some things like the phone and photo were supposed to be seen first, just to add a few more points of interest, and with the other things, it was adding other small bits of info, without really giving too much away from the start, as well as what might have more impact as it unfolds.
On the back tray, you have an image of that same dashboard at night, the car speeding down a dark road with the barest hint of a child caught in the path. Did you ever worry about how “on the nose” you might be with the storytelling or was it explicitly encouraged?
Things like that were encouraged if I remember. I don’t remember where that idea came from but I think I asked them first and they told me to give it a shot, and it worked.
The inside of the booklet has the lyrics scrawled like they’re confessions written in a journal and the images that go with it are a combination of photographs, line art and digital work. What are the tools you use to get those images together, and how do you strike the balance between the elements?
I like the way that came out. I thought in the end it was a great way to tie into the cover concept and give it a little more depth, story, and mystery. I remember Vinnie saying he wanted the lyrics all scrawled like that with little drawings here and there. I can’t remember if it was the original intent or not, but somewhere along the way it became to imply the protagonist’s journal (you can see bits of personal emails in there and things like that). There’s a few snapshots of the inside of the car where you can see the journal and with the doodles and lyrics. I Just scribbled everything down, and then scanned the journal and mixed them into some textures, which I did various things to.
Some of the fans consider A Fine Day To Exit to be the album where Anathema embraces their inner-Pink Floyd. Was that ever a notion presented to you going into the project, or does the whole (the images along with the music itself) just lend itself to such an interpretation?
I actually want to say that I seem to remember it being brought up along the way. Not as something to emulate outright, but more as a reference for the feeling of some of the music, and the way the presentation might follow. In the way that maybe the visuals of Wish You Were Here had a certain ambiguous impact, I suppose, but quite interesting and made you want to take a second look.
How many font schemes do you go through on any given project just to find the one that sets the right tone visually? I think this is an element people don’t often think about because the right font becomes almost invisible inside the whole, but the wrong font can be instantly jarring, if not a complete mistake. How difficult is the selection process?
It depends, really. I like to usually use about two that compliment each other… sometimes three if I need them to “say” more, or even just one at times so everything has a nice, classy, uniform look. It usually comes down to which one “feels” right and compliments the imagery to me.
The art for A Natural Disaster is much different. At the same time, your work for Anathema in general is much different than a larger part of your work (being very aggressive image-wise, since you do a lot of design for metal bands and artists.) Is that a conscious decision on your part to develop a graphic sensibility for them?
Yes, although I can’t take credit for the new one as that was done by Vincent and the band, I always tried to make the art look like they sound to me. And in a way they also sound different from a lot of the “darker” projects I’ve worked on, even though they can be somewhat dark here and there. The art for them always feel like it needed to be a bit cleaner, brighter, or more direct if those are the best words to explain…. maybe a bit romantic, I guess.
Contrasting your work with Anathema to Opeth – You tend to go with monotone color schemes and a bit of a hazy filter for their images. While Opeth’s sound also has changed over time, they also hold to elements of death metal and a sort of “look”. Is it easier or harder to take on a project knowing the group you’re working with has some established style boundaries you’d need to stay inside?
It’s a bit of both. When something has been more or less established or expected, even, it can help to serve as a starting point. But at the same time you want to expand on what you might have done before and be sure not repeat it completely. Maybe start with something that feels familiar or comfortable with each band, and try to do something different with it, or add something new to it in some way (that gives it an identity of it’s own) , in varying amounts or degrees. Sometimes they might feel a need to abandon the past stuff completely to do something fresh and different for a time or two, and that gives you a clean slate and some room to play, but you still have that familiarity with the band and what they’re about and how they see things, to bring to it as well.
As far as coloring and texturing and the general feel, that is usually tailored or inspired by each particular project at the time or even the band itself.
One of the more fantastical designs you did was for Devin Townsend’s Terria. The balance between dark imagery and dream-like illustration is very striking. How were those elements put together? Did you ever need to pull back from one pole to the other because preliminary designs went too far in either direction?
Thank you. Not really… If anything was left out or changed it was more to do with the subject matter rather than going “too far”. There were a few ideas I did that didn’t fit properly (with man made elements and such) which required some revisions, but overall, I was very inspired by it and just ran with whatever I could think of and presented it. Some specifics are hazy, but other than a few things that were dropped because they didn’t really fit in some way or there wasn’t room for them in either edition, (the standard retail version and expanded special edition,) I think we kept mostly everything.
What got you into design for music and who are designers you’ve looked to as your mentors (if any)?
The first steps towards doing it professionally involved working with a few bands I knew locally, such as Psychotic Waltz, and sending out samples to other bands or people that expressed some interest in what I was doing. It is something I’ve always wanted to do in some way, as I’ve always appreciated the visuals that accompanied music I liked and what it added to the whole packages, whether it was for albums like Back In Black, Iron Maiden, The Wall, Among the Living, or Kiss Alive II…
There are many designers and artists that I’ve admired or been influenced in some way. People like Derek Riggs and Mike Clift when I was younger, or Dave McKean (because it was so odd and fresh when I discovered him) to countless others later on.
Because of the detail in your images, what’s your personal feeling about labels and artists coming back to the vinyl format? Did you ever have a design you put a lot of effort into that was released only on CD, so that the imagery was too small to get the full impact?
Well yes, I would say the majority of the album art I’ve done was tailored to a CD format to begin with. And the vinyl version (if any) coming afterward and having the CD artwork adapted to it. I actually prefer working within the CD format in a lot of ways because the way the packages are structured, you can spread the idea out over a few different sections (and many pages if you like) to be seen a piece at a time or embellish on it that way. It’s the format I’ve been accustomed to since the beginning and although there might be a few exceptions, I think most of my stuff and they way I’ve done it stuff might be better suited to that format, although I have been more conscious of it when thinking ahead on later projects. Although when purchasing albums, there have been a few covers I’ve appreciated more on the larger vinyl format.
When you are hired on to do a project, what are the sort of jobs and conditions you like the best? Conversely, what descriptions do you dread hearing when jobs are being proposed to you?
Generally I just like to have an inspiring idea and the time to bring it to life well or really play with it and do it justice and make it all it can be.
It’s oversimplifying your work to say you’re a “metal guy” – You’ve done pieces for prog bands like Glass Hammer, you helped put together the package for Townsend’s Ziltoid The Omniscient which, for anyone unfamiliar, puts his puppet character front-and-center… Is metal a comfortable niche to be known for or does it feel like an unnecessary stereotyping?
I never really though about that, but now that you mention it, I guess that is the case, but doesn’t really bother me, if so. I guess it came about by starting that way or having the majority of my work for metal projects. I love metal and it’s not a bad way to be seen, but my description of Metal is a rather broad one, I suppose. I’ve done a few things by bands that have branched out from the typical category like later Anathema, or Riverside, to name two examples, and at the same time, along with some Devin Townsend, or later Katatonia or some lighter Opeth stuff, I guess I’ve always seen those as all part of the same family.
Up to this point, what are the covers you point to when someone asks what your best work is?
There are few for different reasons. Some it’s because of they result of the art itself and some is a combination of that and the project itself. Opeth Ghost Reveries, Watershed and Blackwater Park, most of the Katatonia and Devin Townsend stuff, the new Avenged Sevenfold and Nevermore covers, King Diamond Abigail II, and Zero Hour – A Fragile Mind are a few that come to might right away. Also Lilitu – The Delores Lesion. If I think about it or go back through my portfolio, a few more would pop up as well I’m sure.
(And now, the cheesy question…) A band or artist contacts you and wants you to do their next recording – in your dreams, who would you love to be on the other end of that discussion, living or dead?
One I haven’t done? At the moment? Dax Riggs probably, because I’m on an Acid Bath kick this week. I get this question sometimes and seem to have a different answer depending on when it’s asked. For example, at one time I might have said Porcupine Tree to choose one example, as I’m a fan, and simply because their music, like many bands for me, can be inspiring visually… but after thinking about it, they already have the perfect match for them in Lasse (Hoile), I think. I had a chance to try some things out for the newest Slayer album, and still think that would be a great thing to do, but otherwise, The most truthful answer is, I’ve been very honored already to work with some of my favorite bands and most of what I might call a “dream gig” would just be to work with those bands again. A funny thing about that is not too long ago, I had a friend recommending a band, so I checked them out and bought a few songs from iTunes. I really liked it thought they had a great feel to try some visuals to. Soon after that I actually got an e-mail from one of the people in that band asking about artwork. It was just a basic inquiry I think, and I don’t know what will come of it, but I hope to talk to them again. So with that said, there are many bands who make music I find inspiring and would like to visualize, either again or for the first time. Probably even a lot them I don’t yet know about.
Thanks again to Travis Smith for speaking with Popdose.Com. You can see more of his work at his site, Seempieces.Com.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer, artist, and musician. As a senior editor for Popdose he has contributed many articles that can be found in the site's archives. He also writes for New Jersey Stage, Musictap.net, Ultimate Classic Rock, and Diffuser FM. His music can be found at http://dwdunphy.bandcamp.com/.