Now a household name within the world of post-rock and post-metal due to his past contributions within Neurosis, Red Sparowes and Battle of Mice, as well as his current band A Storm of Light and ambient solo project IIVII, Josh Graham’s artistic output spans not only multiple musical projects but also multiple mediums. Prolifically applying his unique creative hand to album artwork, music videos, merchandise and concert visuals, his vision has yielded awe-inspiring creations over the years. PureGrainAudio caught up with Josh on the eve of A Storm of Light’s European tour with Mono and Jo Quail to discuss his art and the band’s impending new album Anthroscene.
Can you talk me through the artwork for A Storm of Light’s new full-length Anthroscene? Are there any themes (or an overarching theme) on the album that is conveyed in the cover art?
Josh Graham: The cover is a pretty abstract concept. The more obvious aspects are the relationship between peace and war. The peace dove, landing in the hand of the officer. The symbol for this record is an anarchy symbol and inverted peace symbol, which feels really appropriate for these times. Going beyond the immediate recognition… There’s a lyric in the song “Life Will Be Violent”, which is, “We were surrounded by swat team beauty queens.” The image plays with that idea, but kind of delves into the identity of crooked SWAT team police, riot officers and politicians.
The police and their affinity for weapons and gear, you know they love to get dressed up, eyeing themselves in the mirror. They look good, feel tough, and are ready to fuck people up at any time. It also kind of reflects how a lot of politicians view themselves, as well as how they operate. They are surrounded by body guards, pampered and catered to. They have this public persona that is all about “serving the people,” but you know they too, are ready to fuck anyone over at any time, to get what they want. This interview with Noam Chomsky is pretty eye opening. Of course, there are honest police and politicians, that that obviously is not what we’re dealing with on the album.
The album Anthroscene drops on October 5, 2018, via Translation Loss (US), Consouling Sounds (EU and UK) and Daymare (Japan).
Back in 1997, I experienced Neurosis live for the first time, and it was the hypnotic, harrowing visuals on the giant screen as well as their ritualistic, mesmeric music that had me glued to the spot for the ensuing sixty minutes. Although Josh wasn’t with Neurosis at that time, he went on to take over the role of visual artist in the band from 2000 – 2012, and additionally has done a huge amount of concert visual work not only for his own projects but also for some huge names in both the metal and pop world, including Soundgarden (for whom he is the Creative Director), Drake, Jay-Z, Madonna and Mastodon.
What are your goals when creating visuals for a live experience?
Graham: I did an interview a few years ago about visuals. It was with a few different artists, but one was Michael Gira. [Singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, author and artist, most notably for Swans.] He said something to the effect of, he hated live visuals and that they detract from the show. I definitely see his point, especially because he is a front man that is the (great) focus of the audience.
With that in mind, the successful use of visuals has to be well thought out, and well executed, otherwise I agree with Michael. They can be totally distracting and can ruin the entire vibe of the show. So, my goal is always to compliment the music, and provide another level to the live experience. It’s important to ebb and flow with the music, pull back when the music speaks for itself, and go full tilt when appropriate.
Check out part 1 of this two-part video of Neurosis at Roadburn 2009.
Following on from that, when creating visuals for other people/bands, to what extent does their music inspire your related visual work?
Graham: The music has to inform the visuals, otherwise there’s a disconnect. That said it can relate in different ways. You can either focus on small lyrical elements in every song, and try to tie it in that way, or you can create a larger arc that works with the entire set. I prefer the latter, where you create an outline of how the content can work across the set, what points you want to hit at certain times, etc. Ebb and flow with colour palettes per song, themed groups of imagery that may hit a lyrical element in the song.
How closely (if at all) do you work with the bands / artists in these situations? Do they give you a general idea of what they’re looking for, or do they give you free reign to create whatever you feel is right for them?
Graham: As far as working with the artists, it’s always different. With Soundgarden and Neurosis, there was a direct line of communication as the content was put together. I’ve been working with Dropkick Murphys, and I primarily deal with one of their trusted production managers. With Jay Z and Drake, Willo Perron [Creative Director for Jay-Z] was directly in contact with the artists, and he worked with them to create the overall presentations (led screen configurations, etc.), and arcing content themes, etc. Depending on the situation, then we’d sit down with Drake, for example, and he’d basically yay or nay stuff right on the spot, right before the show.
Actually yeah, I forgot to mention that a lot of the content for those tours was created on-site, for the first few shows of the tours. Totally sleepless insanity. The larger the artist, the less concerned they are with the minutia of what imagery is in the content, they are more concerned with being able to trust that you will make something that fits their brand. So sometimes there will be ideas coming from them, but more often you are submitting written ideas, and executing pretty freely.
Check out these Soundgarden 2014 tour excerpts.
Do you have any regular rituals that you partake in to find inspiration, such as heading out into nature or going for walks at night?
Graham: My wife Julie and I do exactly that, we go on a lot nature walks, Audubon sanctuaries, take night walks around our neighbourhood etc. We’re lucky to live a few blocks from the Hudson River, which has tons of state parks. I also research and reference a lot of contemporary art and fashion to get ideas on ways to frame content, or how to push the boundaries and keep things fresh.
To what extent does the music you create inspire you visually, and to what extent does your visual work inspire your music?
Graham: For my own music and visuals, they are always happening at the same time, always feeding off of each other and inspiring all aspects. A visual idea will inspire a sound or a sample that starts a new song. A musical or lyric idea will create new ideas for imagery, etc. A lot of times it gets overwhelming, but because I am able to do all of this crap on my own, it definitely results in a manically refined cohesion that I don’t see a lot. I guess that said, the creative directors for NIN have been very successful at that, where it feels like a singular vision, but I imagine that’s due to years of working directly with Trent Reznor.
A friend of mine once argued against the use of album art at all, claiming that it takes away from, or alters, the “blank canvas” of each individual’s listening experience. I argued the opposite – that cover art can (and has in hundreds of examples I could give) colour and shape the way an album feels when you’re listening to it, which for me is usually a very positive experience.
Graham: I agree with you. The reason record covers exist is to inspire a mood, vibe, point of view, place or setting to the music before you hear it. Sure, sometimes on the (independent) radio, you may hear something while driving, and be completely inspired by it, but I still believe that when you see the artwork, you have a more intimate relationship with the music, and are more tied into the artist’s vision.
As an example within the realm of your creative output, your work within Battle of Mice extended to the album art, which for me is a very “blue” album (something that clearly manifests itself through your artwork), which augments my listening experience significantly. To what extent do you think visual art can alter or define the listening experience?
Graham: I also always think of music in colours. The Storm record covers are always shifting with how I see the music for that particular record. Battle of Mice was blue, but after ten years, I saw it as black and white and fuchsia… a decade of not hearing that music hit me with a different association I guess.
But yeah, a record cover’s colour can also add impact. Working with Kim Thayil [lead guitarist of Soundgarden] has been great, he likes to keep the covers progressing in colour. Right now we are keeping the collections in a green pallet, while pushing other releases out into areas they haven’t hit in the past. I know black and white imagery is used a lot, but sometimes I feel like the more it is repeated, the less identity the musical catalog has, everything just sits in this same world, mood and realm. I mean, that may be great, and that may be exactly how the artists envision their musical journey. It seems very limiting to me, and lacks a bit of expression.
What are your favourite pieces of art that you’ve created or are most proud of?
Graham: Hmmm, I don’t really know. I always see the flaws in everything I do. I think my absolute favourite thing has been an art installation I did called Watchmaker, which is up on Vimeo. The IIVII visuals I like a lot, and King Animal too. Primitive North, Honor Found in Decay, Anthroscene.
His 2014 installation Standard Model Catastrophes at the NY Media Center was a huge moment for Josh and a celebration of his work, which included his Watchmaker installation (custom-made for the Media Center’s 360-degree projection space) that focused on themes of politics and nuclear weaponry.
Do you have any personal favourite album covers from other artists?
Graham: Storm Thorgerson’s [Graphic designer and music video director, most famously for Pink Floyd] work is some of my favorite by far. Grinderman 1 and 2. Bad Brains s/t. Bauhaus The Sky’s Gone Out. Bowie Blackstar. Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, Joy Divison, Massive Attack Mezzanine, Sonic Youth Daydream Nation, Swans filth, Melvins Houdini, Ministry Mind is Terrible Thing, The Cure Pornogrpahy, Janes Addiction Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual.
Check out the IIVII video for “Painless” here.
What other music-related visual artists (either sill or moving image) have inspired you over the years?
Graham: Jenny Holzer’s work is amazing. Taryn Simon’s A Cold Hole, James Turrell, Banksy, Ai WeiWei, Nam June Paik. Just to name a few.
Have you ever purchased an album solely because of the album artwork? If yes, did the music live up to the artwork?
Graham: I did that real early on in my life, junior high and before. I started working at a record store right after high school, so I was able to investigate everything first. I remember ordering Husker Du Warehouse Songs and Stories after seeing a picture of the art in Thrasher, and I was only mildly impressed, though I have come to appreciate them now. Now that I look at it though, I think it must have been about the colours… in my memory it’s a weird house, but that’s not what I am seeing. I bought the Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs cassette, more referencing the title, I was very confused about that one. Haha.
Will you be incorporating any sort of visual aspect to your upcoming European tour dates with A Storm of Light?
Graham: There will be visuals on the tour, and they are working similarly to the way I described them earlier. That said, being a smaller band with a minuscule budget, we are working with a single projector and screen. In order to make the visuals stand up to my other work the presentation is fairly complex, utilising a variety of framing devices and repetition to add to the psychosis that is A Storm of Light. Haha.
Many thanks to Josh for his time. You can view a more expansive catalogue of his work at http://suspendedinlight.com.