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An Interview with John Coulthart

John Coulthart’s illustrations and designs have haunted our culture since 1982. He has created artwork for Hawkwind, Craddle Of Filth, John Hassell and others. He has illustrated the work of Alan Moore and Steve Perkins and has provided iconic cover illustrations and designs for Michael Moorcock, Jeff VanderMeer, Philip Jose Farmer and Joe R. Lasdale. He worked on the notorious Lord Horror comic that was deemed obscene and was banned by a British court of law. He is perhaps more well- known for his bizarre, chaotic illustrations of various H. P. Lovecraft works, some of which can be seen in The Starry Wisdom short story collections and Haunter Of The Dark And Other Grotesque Visions. His website is http://www.johncoulthart.com/

 Interview by Dimitris Kontogiannis

What were your influences when you first started?

When I was a boy it was all the usual stuff: science fiction and fantasy in books, film and TV. Then as a teenager I was greatly inspired by the proliferation of imagery on record sleeves and book covers in the 1970s. That’s the pop culture stuff. I was also interested in art from a very early age. My mother had been to art school so we had a few art books and magazines in the house. I was fascinated by contemporary art even though as a boy I didn’t really know why a lot of it looked the way it did. I liked the Pop Artists and Surrealists since their work was the most immediate and striking. And by the mid-Seventies, both those schools of art had been fully co-opted by advertising media and commercial graphics so they seemed familiar.

How did you end up designing artwork for bands like Hawkwind and Cradle of Filth?

I came into contact with Hawkwind when I met someone by chance who knew the band. I mentioned that I’d been doing some drawings based on their songs so he sent copies to Dave Brock. Cradle of Filth contacted me after Dani bought a copy of my book, The Haunter of the Dark, a collection of HP Lovecraft-inspired comics and illustrations.

Could you give us a 2-3 examples of albums whose artwork you consider to be perfect?

“Perfect” is a difficult thing to quantify, especially in design terms. I have favourites, of course, so I’ll pick out a few of those.

Abraxas by Santana (1970). Album art by Mati Klarwein, logo design by Robert Venosa. Mati Klarwein’s incredible paintings were used on a number of album covers, notably Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. Abraxas uses a painting he produced in the early 1960s, The Annunciation, an exotic, erotic hyperrealist psychedelic scene. It’s a world away from the often sloppy psychedelic visions produced by The Fool and other artists for psychedelic albums. The elegant band logo by Bob Venosa (also a formidable painter) is the perfect complement.

Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones (1971). Design by Andy Warhol. I pick this for its audacity–a big close-up of Joe Dallesandro’s swollen groin–and also the gimmick, a real zipper was used on the early versions of the album. Andy Warhol produced more album cover designs than many people think, staring with jazz albums in the 1950s. Having worked in advertising, he knew how to use images in a very direct way. He also liked gimmicks, as he showed with the peelable banana skin on the first Velvet Underground album. The Rolling Stones were always lauding male sexuality in the traditional blues manner, so this isn’t so surprising in that context. But it also has a confrontational, homoerotic aspect–on the inner sleeve you get the same view of some guy’s underwear–running counter to the trend of Seventies rock which usually flaunted naked women on album sleeves. Jagger was never afraid of flirting with the gay side of life, as he showed when he wrote Cocksucker Blues.

Autobahn by Kraftwerk (1974). UK sleeve–designer unknown. The original German release of this album featured a painting by Emil Schult of cars going down an autobahn. For the UK release, Vertigo took the German autobahn sign (which is also the same bridge symbol as is used in Britain) and made that the entirety of the design. Its a very striking use of a pre-existing symbol and looked very different from everything around it at the time.

Do It Yourself by Ian Dury and the Blockheads (1979). Design by Barney Bubbles. I’d have to choose something by Barney Bubbles and picked out this because it was released thirty years ago and shows how Barney Bubbles could take an idea and run with it. The album art and the accompanying advertising campaign all work variations on a DIY home-improvement theme with the album sleeve being pressed onto genuine wallpaper stock; they used over thirty different paper designs. Barney’s title lettering is derived from those shop-bought letters people use to stick on their garden gates. You can even read advice to Dury fans in the album’s title: in the shop you’d see the same album in a range of sleeves so it was up to the purchaser make the final decision as to which they wanted to buy. Barney Bubbles loved this kind of playful, humorous approach to cover design.

Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo (1982). Design by Neville Brody. I’d also have to pick something from Neville Brody’s run of sleeves for the Fetish label in the early 1980s. I like the way with this one he conveys the band’s “modern primitive” concerns via a simple construction of chicken wire and plaster hands. And I also liked the hand-drawn lettering and the row of symbols which may or may not relate to each track. Designers often have a tendency to spell out everything in a design but Brody avoids that here. It’s up to the viewer to decide what connections there might be between the design and the music.

Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis has often discussed this possibility. Do you think that the downloading of music will eventually render album artwork obsolete?

I respect Storm Thorgerson a great deal but I can’t really agree with that. There’s a couple of reasons why.

First of all you have to ask what album artwork is for. Album art evolved originally as decoration but quickly developed into a part of the album marketing. One example would be Martin Denny’s Exotica albums in the late 50s and early 60s, many of them featuring suitably exotic photographs of the same attractive model, a woman far more attractive than Denny and his group. Using the same model gave the albums a kind of brand as well as signalling via styling and other visual cues that the music was “exotic” in a rather kitsch manner.

This kind of marketing hasn’t vanished simply because music is now available as sound files. Musical works are still sold as albums and those albums–whether seen online or not–need to be identifiable visually as belonging to a certain genre. Album art is reflected in web graphics–the new Grizzly Bear album art, for example, forms a pattern on the front page of their site, tying the two things together.

In addition to this, albums need to be easy to find when browsing web pages for shopping purposes or looking in music application lists. The iTunes music application is simply a music-oriented spreadsheet if you remove all the album graphics. If I have iTunes on random play–something I do quite often–and a track comes up that I don’t recognise, I can immediately identify the album when I see its cover art and usually don’t need to read the track name as well. This whole aspect of using visuals to identify music hasn’t lost any of its importance, if anything it’s more important now than it was in the past.

The other very obvious side of the question concerns the artists: they drive the development of the artwork since the artwork gives their music an extra quality; it can add to the music in numerous ways, something Storm Thorgerson knows very well. The artwork not only places the musical work in a particular genre but is a means for the artist to speak to an audience before they hear the music at all. The sleeve of Sgt Pepper by the Beatles announced to the world that this was a more colourful work than their previous album, Revolver, with its Aubrey Beardsley-influenced black & white graphics. Sgt Pepper showed the Beatles dressed as fictional characters, surrounded by a group of “people we like”. That cover photo explains some of the musical content–the group adopting fictional personas–in purely visual terms as well as adding to our store of knowledge about the band via the people in the background. That sleeve caused other groups to modify their own cover art and comment upon the Beatles’ sleeve. The Rolling Stones cover for Their Satanic Majesties Request was a visual response to the Sgt Pepper sleeve; the cover for We’re Only in it For the Money by the Mothers of Invention was a satirical poke at Sgt Pepper, just as the music was a satirical poke at hippies and flower power.

What has changed over the past decade is that we’re no longer in Storm Thorgerson’s unique era of huge audiences for rock albums and huge marketing budgets which could support designers like Hipgnosis flying to Hawaii to photograph a sheep on a beach. The music world has completely fragmented since the punk era and the rise of independent music; there are more genres and sub-genres and the audience for all these different kinds of music is smaller as a consequence. But all that’s really been lost is the money for very expensive design. Bands still want artwork attached to their albums.

What is it like, working with Alan Moore? His comic book scripts are famously detailed. Did he use the same approach when discussing your illustrations?

That’s an approach he uses for comics but it isn’t necessarily how he is with everything. The CD designs I produced were done after we’d had a phone discussion of the general themes of each work. Mostly with those he was happy for me to do whatever I thought best. With the Snakes & Ladders CD he asked if it was possible to design the insert as a sheet which opened out into a snakes & ladders board game showing some of the people mentioned in the reading. I loved that idea and managed to do a game layout which included more references than I would have thought possible over 100 squares.

6) You have illustrated the famously controversial Lord Horror project for Savoy Books. It seems strange to me that a book could still be banned, not that long ago. Why such reaction? Do you think that the work hit a nerve with authority at the time, or was it a case of the usual ignorance?

The answer is a complex one. First of all, Savoy had been harassed for a number of years by the local police force during the reign of Chief Constable James Anderton, a very religious man (claimed to talk to god) with a high moral agenda which included, for a time, raiding any shop in Manchester suspected of selling pornography. Savoy had two bookshops and these were raided on many occasions. One raid resulted in David Britton being imprisoned in 1981 for the sale of a handful of paperback books. This seems incredible now but the whole saga is well-documented on the Savoy website.

Dave began writing Lord Horror shortly after this episode and included a police chief based on Anderton among the characters. Lord Horror is a character based on William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, a man who broadcast propaganda in English for the Nazis during the Second World War. Anderton made public pronouncements when Aids was starting to seriously affect gay people that gays suffering from Aids needed to be put into camps. Dave took some of Anderton’s speeches and merely substituted the word “gays” for “Jews”. The book as a whole is a delirious blend of wild and unpleasant characters, meditations on art and philosophy and much satiric humour. The same applies to the comic books which myself and artist Kris Guidio were creating with Dave and which further extended the Lord Horror mythos. None of the fascist characters’ behaviour is coded as “bad” in the usual fictional sense, we see them acting a certain way and have to make up our own minds about the morality of these actions. Creating works of this nature in the 1980s might have been okay in London but in Manchester, with a police force already used to raiding the Savoy office, there was obviously going to be a problem.

Can you tell us a bit about The Soul, your new project with Alan Moore? The whole decadent occult investigator thing sounds awesome.

This evolved from a comic strip idea which would have originally been published in one of the ABC titles to a text-story-with-illustrations, which is how we now intend to do it. One part of this has already been completed for the forthcoming Moon & Serpent Bumper Book of Magic which Alan is writing with Steve Moore. In all there should be six parts, presented across the book. The idea is quite a simple one, taking the old idea of the “occult detective” but twisting it slightly by having a female character. Occult detectives were a minor spin-off from Victorian ghost story fiction: Sheridan Le Fanu had Dr Hesselius, Algernon Blackwood had John Silence, William Hope Hodgson had Carnaki the Ghost Finder; Weird Tales magazine had many more. With The Soul Alan wanted to use the weird fiction story to show various magical processes at work.

What music are you listening to these days? Are you still on a psychedelic mood?

I still am but that’s just a passing infatuation. I like the psychedelic era a great deal so recently I’ve been delving deeper than I had before via the numerous compilations you can buy. Generally my musical tastes range quite widely: I’ve got over 35,000 tracks in iTunes so it’s easier to say what I don’t like rather than what I do. I tend to like anything which blurs boundaries and mixes genres so I also tend to avoid the mainstreams of anything. I enjoy psychedelic music partly because the whole period fascinates me but it also catches music at a curious point, the crossover from beat music/rock’n’roll into what quickly became heavy and progressive rock from 1970 onwards. Musical movements are often most interesting when they’re developing in that way.

Aside from the psych stuff I’ve been a Krautrock fan since the late Seventies–Ammon Düül II, Can, Cluster, Faust, Neu!, etc. I also like all kinds of electronic music. I became a Kraftwerk fan as soon as I heard Autobahn. I’ve recently been doing cover designs for a number of the dubstep artists coming out of Bristol. One of my favourite contemporary electronic artists is Robert Henke who works under the name Monolake. Everything he does is worth hearing. Same with Paul Schütze whose works are being reissued in digital form via his website. Jon Hassell is a favourite artist I’ve been fortunate enough to also work with, having designed one of his CDs and also helped design his website.

You have illustrated many of the works of Lovecraft. What was your approach on illustration his “nameless horrors”? Is it difficult to illustrate entities such as Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep?

I’ve never found it difficult, in fact for some reason I seem to have an aptitude for illustrating this kind of thing. I actually think of Cthulhu now as the horror equivalent of a jazz “standard”, something you can pick up and improvise with in any number of ways. Cthulhu is more carefully described than most of Lovecraft’s other gods but even then he keeps things vague and we also see in The Call of Cthulhu that this monster can recombine itself after having been struck by a ship so it evidently has a mutable form. Many of his other creatures or gods you can either interpret as supernatural entities or alien organisms or a something which blends elements of both; this gives endless scope for invention and its one of the factors which contributes to Lovecraft’s enduring appeal.

You seem to be a big fan of weird literature (I am thinking of The House on the Borderland, A Voyage to Arcturus, not to mention Lovecraft of course). Do you have a personal favorite amongst such books?

I tend to prefer writers rather than individual works, so I like Lovecraft, Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith and Arthur Machen a great deal. David Lindsay is an exception since A Voyage to Arcturus is easily his best work, a unique philosophical/metaphysical fable presented in the guise of a science fiction story.

The eye in the pyramid motif often appears in your work. Are you a fan of Robert Anton Wilson, is it a Crowley tribute, or do you just like the symbol?

Yes, its use comes partly from RAW since I was a big fan of the Illuminatus! books in the 1970s. I already had an interest in the occult prior to reading Wilson’s books, all that those did was push me faster towards areas I was already moving towards, including Lovecraft and Machen, both of whom are referred to in Illuminatus! When I started doing artwork based on Hawkwind’s songs I decided to try and use a symbol other than the ubiquitous hawk. Barney Bubbles had already established a precedent for this by putting an eye in a triangle on the cover of the Hawklog, the booklet which appeared in copies of the band’s In Search of Space album.

What are your plans for the immediate future? Is it true that you have a project with Grant Morrison in the works (I can’t remember where I read about that)? What’s that about?

There were plans to illustrate something Grant was writing based on the Cthulhu Mythos but that fell apart for the usual reasons, both of us being too busy with other things and a lack of a publisher to corral the project into physical form.

Right now I have more books of my own which I’m planning on seeing published. The first of these is the collected Lord Horror series, Reverbstorm, which was planned as an 8-part series although we only produced seven issues. I’ve scanned all the artwork and re-lettered all the pages and the whole thing is on the verge of being completed with a few pages for the end left to do. It’s been a source of frustration that this project which Dave Britton and I spent many years working on hasn’t been more widely seen. As a book it contains 270 pages of some of my very best black & white drawing. It’s also my goodbye to the comics medium; following this there wasn’t anything more I wanted to do with comics.

Reverbstorm is all old work, however, most of it was drawn in the 1990s. I also have a secret project of my own which I’ve been working on since 2001 and which currently comprises one finished book and a third of a second work in progress. I’ve been resolute in not discussing this in any detail, partly because I want to surprise people but mainly because I’m tired of the process whereby forthcoming works are trailed and previewed and dissected long before they see the light of day. All I’ll say is that this new work is the most personal of anything I’ve done to date, it’s also some of the best. Publishers are being approached and any news on that front will of course be announced on my website.

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10 Responses “An Interview with John Coulthart”

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