Uncovered: Guster, “Lost and Gone Forever”

Written by Music, Uncovered

This week, Jeff Giles discusses the artwork for Guster’s 1999 album with designer Robert Hamilton.

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 Robert Hamilton, the artist responsible for the cover of Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, as well as a long list of other albums.

How did you become involved with Guster?

Well, I was living in Davis Square, Somerville, and I guess they had some connections to Q Division studio — they have this producer, Mike Dineen, who went on to produce Jen Trynin and a bunch of other bands. They were recording with him, and I had known him — basically, the same way we’ve gotten all our work, they’d seen some of my stuff and they gave me a call. My first project with them was their first record, and they’re still great friends.

So have you heard the new record?

I have not, no. But I’ve been in touch with the manager, and he’s supposed be sending me stuff. I’m not 100 percent sure I’m going to be doing the new album, but I’m really excited to hear it.

This particular album, Lost and Gone Forever, has a pretty unusual cover. How did it come together?

Well, what makes the cover great is obviously that incredible photo. So “I found the photo” is the very short answer. (laughter) I mean, who could take credit for that? The photographer is Philip Jones Griffiths. I used to — we’re talking about 1999. I was still taking the subway all around town and sitting in bookstores, looking for inspiration. Particularly earlier in my career, I just really liked things, especially photography, that just simply spoke without a lot of noise or graphic junk layered on top. That isn’t always the approach, but often back then, I would just go and sit down in the bookstore, in sections where I could find interesting scraps of inspiration, and when I came across that photo, it was just…wow.

Where did you find it? What’s the story behind it?

Well, here’s the other thing — I don’t want too much backstory. I want to pull my own meaning from it. But that shot was taken in Belfast, and that photographer, his most famous work is Vietnam photography that’s just incredibly beautiful and haunting stuff.

What kind of process did you go through with this? How many different versions of the cover?

(chuckles) I once took a screengrab of all the different covers for…I think it was the Keep It Together album —

Well, that one went through a dozen titles, too, didn’t it?

Well, that’s another thing, is that you don’t always know the title of the album. You’re trying to make something meaningful (laughs) and the title could end up something like Ham Sandwich. But I took that screengrab because sometimes I’d have something like 35 different versions on the screen. That’s actually cool, because Guster is really into it, and it’s — I always think of it as such a personal thing for the musician, not just a product or a brochure with a short shelf life. I think of it as something that these artists — it’s such a personal piece of their history, and I feel a responsibility to get it right.

The artwork for their albums and other assorted products tends to be more visually interesting than some of the other stuff you see — straight band shots and the like.

I hope so. I just want something that’s a little bit out of the norm. I mean, you can be throwaway and easy at times — my work on the Parachute album is probably that — but something with a little mystery is cool. And that picture on Lost and Gone Forever — I don’t know if you can tell, but the kid is standing on top of a piano. And you can put your own meaning to that. Also, most of the musicians I work with are long-term relationships, and I want each piece of artwork to feel distinctly different from the last. You want people to get excited about it when they see it — you want them to want to reach out and grab it. I should say that with all of these projects, I work with my company, my partner and my wife, Kristin Hughes, so this is all her, too.

How much time did you spend with the album while you were working on the booklet?

I’d say a lot of time, but it isn’t studious. Sometimes later on, after a record is released, I have the luxury of really getting to dig into the lyrics — and, you know, knowing the real titles of the songs. (laughs)

How does it feel seeing the final product in the stores?

It feels great, but these days, I’m in the record store so infrequently. Back in those days, I would spend just hours and hours, and it was very meaningful. Of course, there is the graphic designers’ sense of perfectionism where you can always see something wrong with it. I just picked up Lost and Gone Forever on my way into the office and thought, “Man, if I could have just been there to press-check this.” (laughs) But that isn’t for everybody. It’s definitely a thrill to see the end result, for sure.

What are you working on these days?

Well, music is really a small minority of what we do, but I just finished doing some work for the James Taylor and Carole King tour. We’ve been doing some work with James for the last few years, and they called us to create the videos for this massive, 18-foot-tall circular video screen, and we just finished that. A big load of work, but it’s really fun. The majority of the work we do — we actually have two companies now, and one of them is strictly devoted to non-profits, so we’re doing a lot of good work for change.

What kind of work?

We just did a website for the National Endowment for Democracy, we do stuff for the Center for Investigative ReportingCorporate Accountability International is one — we just did a “Retire Ronald McDonald” campaign.

What are your thoughts on the current state of album artwork in general?

I wish I could say I was hipper to it, but these days, when I listen to stuff, I tend to be digging out old weirdness instead of new things. But without being studious about it, I’d say I think it’s great. There’s fantastic stuff out there all the time.

You don’t worry about the shrunken space for album art?

I don’t worry about it. I guess I lament its loss, and sitting there with that big, tactile thing in your bedroom, I don’t think it’ll ever be replaced. But we’re really into the latest technology, too, so I guess we’ll hang. I just don’t get as excited about the new digital ways of delivering artwork and content. That’ll never be the same.

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