It’s What’s On the Outside That Counts: The Importance of Album Artwork

By Marvin Dotiyal, Staff Writer

You walk in a record store and stumble upon an eye-catching, picturesque vinyl. Glancing over at the cover several times and aimlessly pondering what it’s all about, you decide to give it a spin. Before you know it, you’ve discovered your next favorite band, thanks to the album cover.

Whether it be a simple photo of the band or an illustration, album artworks come in a multitude of expressive ways. An album’s artwork is essential not only in the sense of attraction but also in capturing a theme or a concept within the music. Musicians always have a story to tell with each album being a creative fragment of their career history. Likewise, album artwork artists also have a story to tell with each album they design; unfortunately, however, their stories are often lost and overshadowed by the music itself, unless you do it yourself.

In the DIY music scene, band members often take the role of designing their own album artworks. Athens’ very own hardcore trio Rader collectively work together when brainstorming ideas for an album cover. John Montgomery, drummer and main vocalist for Rader, takes album artwork duties for the band, drafting ideas the band discussed.

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Athens hardcore band, Rader’s, album artwork for their EP, Dried Up.

“I don’t personally believe an album should tell a story beyond an album’s theme or point, but it definitely can, and it’s always interesting to see that,” Montgomery said.  Rader’s latest album art for their EP, Dried Up, portrays themes of its lyrical content by using a simple metaphorical cartoon. “Unless an album has a really strong theme or concept, I don’t think cover art needs to be related to the music whatsoever,” Montgomery said. “No one should feel limited in what they play or what imagery they want to use to accompany it.”

Montgomery’s favorite album covers are watercolors or photographs of a natural environment, but he does not draw any influence from them nor apply them to his work. “I wouldn’t even call myself an artist. I just do a lot of cartoons and stencils, which worked out with Rader because a lot of imagery in hardcore is high contrast images or black and white drawings.”

From an artist’s perspective, the creative process makes the story. The album artwork of Rader’s split with Athens-based chaotic punk band TFU was a result of raw experimentation. “Because the split lacked any coherent theme or concept, I took liberties with the art and created a collage as a take on big oil, big agriculture and extreme right-wing politics,” said Montgomery. “The album art turned out as a sort of dystopian scene overtaken by insane looking political and media figures. That would be an example of my work telling a story beyond what is presented musically.”

Furthermore, Travis Millard, the artist behind The Get Up Kids’ quintessential second-wave 1999 emo record Something to Write Home About, also devised his final idea through trial and error and experimentation. Searching for an art direction was a struggle for Millard. “There wasn’t any art direction, but they gave me the title of the album to consider, so I shuffled through some drawings and sketched around on few ill-fated ideas,” Millard said. “A few days ticked by, and I was still searching for a direction.”

He sketched out a couple of drafts first and then painted the final product.

“I worked the drawings into both pieces and started loosely laying down drippy color washes on a blue painting of the robots holding hands,” recalled Millard. “Looking back at the art now, I’m reminded that it was taped above the couch painting because those drips run randomly through the cover image.”

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Travis Millard’s sketching process of The Get Up Kids’ Something to Write Home About.

As seen on the final product, the iconic robots on the cover of Something to Write Home About was inspired by a rusty vintage robot toy on a shelf in his old barn studio. “The robots leaning together on a couch seemed sort of endearing and shared a sincerity I was picking up from the title and their music as a whole.”

Millard was first introduced to designing album artworks when he started to design art for The Get Up Kids. Millard grew up in the same neighborhood with the band and knew them from high school. Later, Millard started painting and making comics, sharing them through zines and small art shows. After Millard saw their old band Kingpin come together in high school, he caught a glimpse of an early Get Up Kids a few years later.

Along the way, The Get Up Kids asked him to work on the album artwork for The Get Up Kids/The Anniversary split EP. Before finishing the EP art, the band asked Millard to design their upcoming full-length, Something to Write Home About.

“I was tripping out about what I might do for the EP when I got a call from Rob asking to meet them at a bar for a band meeting,” recalled Millard. “I remember feeling the blood drain from my face and just running home to figure it out.”

By the time Something to Write Home About was on deck, the band toured nonstop, and it was their time to shine. “All the ingredients were already in the bowl, and I just got to swoop in to add some sprinkles. I feel lucky to have been able to do it.”

On the other hand, however, some artists take a completely different approach when designing albums. In lieu of planning any ideas, Daniel McBride, a graphic designer and art director at Sumerian Records, loves “diving head-first into things” and seeing where his subconscious takes him. McBride has his own workflow when designing albums.

“I don’t typically sketch anything out on paper,” said McBride. “I love to zone out to the point where I switch to auto-pilot and don’t have to think about what I am doing.” In addition, McBride said the best part of his job is creative freedom and having people trust your eye.

Though just like any artist, McBride shuffles through his drafts and ideas to select the best fit for a band. “There have been many situations where after a long-fought battle, things circle around back to my first draft or initial concepts after crazy back-and-forth journeys of clients not knowing what they exactly want,” McBride said. “I don’t want to overgeneralize and sound like I am talking negatively about my clients, but I wish the ratio of ‘dream’ clients to clients I would call ‘a hassle to deal with’ were higher.”

Depending on the band, however, some bands can get pretty hands-on with their album artwork. “I’ve had entire bands in the same room as me, while I put things together, and I’ve also had band members physically paint and create things.”

McBride embraced art at an early age when his father brought him the family sketchbook. His family has a history of being artists, and his father wanted McBride to fill out every page in the sketchbook. McBride started his career by designing show fliers and MySpace layouts for his band, Last House on the Left. His first album art was for Crucify. Kill. Rot. by Rose Funeral. Eventually, McBride started making show flyers for Shawn Keith, who was a partner of the Sumerian Records founder Ash Avildsen.

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CHON’s latest release, Homey. Album art from Daniel McBride.

“Shawn reached out to me to create the logo for the band Born of Osiris that you still see on album covers today,” said McBride. “That eventually led me to my first album artwork for Sumerian, which was Born of Osiris’ A Higher Place.”

 

McBride recently finished CHON’s latest release Homey, which became one of his most personal and favorite works. The story behind CHON’s new album originated when McBride and photography extraordinaire Randy Edwards took photos at a beach. For the most part, it spawned an idea for a tribute to his aunt’s death.

“Whenever she signed her name in a birthday or a Christmas card, she would always draw the same little palm tree that she branded herself over the years. Palm trees were scattered all around her house in various forms: art, photos, trinkets, glass miniatures and such,” said McBride. “I immortalized her on this new album cover by having a palm tree basically blasted on the entire cover.”

Oddly enough, it’s safe to say that McBride’s first sketchbook drawing foreshadowed his future. “Last year over Christmas, I visited my Mom and found a box of old sketchbooks, including that first one. I opened it, turned to the second page and found my very first drawing ever,” McBride said. “It was the pyramids of Egypt… fast forward today where I am working for a record label called Sumerian with pyramids and the Sphinx on the logo.”

Bands love telling stories through their music, but most fans and listeners don’t know the backstory of an album cover. Even if the visuals don’t blend in with the music or its theme, album artists definitely have their own story behind their creative processes and how their ideas evolve, and without a doubt, they deserve more recognition and praise.

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