©2011 Master Seven. All rights reserved.
Interview with Jeff Jordan
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
When I'm approached by a band, and this has happened a few times, they might say, "This seems like something you might do," and they get off on some attempt to explain what they're thinking to me, and it's so NOT like what I'd do. Like what are people thinking? I just say NO! I'm not in it just for the money, you know? If I can't do something I'm proud of, it would show, and that's a place I'm not willing to go. If an idea doesn't speak to me, I don't do it. So I've probably turned down as many potential covers as the ones I've done. I'm not interested in realizing someone else's vision. Also, I won't take on a project if I don't like the music.
What is it that you hear in music that allows you to see a vision for your art? How do lyrics affect the direction of your art?
It's different every time. When I was approached by Graham Czach, he sent me a demo of what became the Lucid album. I liked the music quite a lot, particularly “Reincarnate,” and was immediately drawn to the lyrics in that song. I have a fondness for mermaids, and when Graham and I emailed back and forth a bit, the image that became the cover gradually appeared to us both. It was a conversational collaboration, essentially. He had some ideas that didn't fit the image at all, and I told him so. I always feel simplicity is the best way to go, so we talked about things and I was able to get it through that some of the things he had mentioned might make for a confusing, overly complicated cover. Musicians aren't necessarily visual people, and sometimes I have to educate them about creating a successful image that communicates its intention clearly. So I sent him sketches and we pretty quickly arrived at about 90% of what became the cover--the landlocked mermaid trapped in a city, surrounded by images and objects of the sea. But we both felt some other element was needed, and at that point I thought about the last song, “Lily,” which was written for/about his little niece. He sent me some photos of her and I incorporated her into the composition, and it was a go.
How much does the first draft of your artwork typically get tweaked after the band sees it? How much is reasonable from your perspective?
I always try to talk to band members about what they want. Hopefully there's one member of a band that has the final say, who's concerned about the total package. I don't do well with Art By Committee. So far I haven't had to deal with any bands who are total democracies. By that I mean every member of the band has a say. I generally specify that up front, because I used to run into it a long time ago, doing logos or whatever for local bands. That sort of situation is a total nightmare. The drummer and bass player like this part, but the singer and guitarists want this part to change. Sometimes this sort of thing went on and On and ON, and they didn't think they should pay me more money because they couldn't make up their minds, and so on.
So generally I try to get my ideas from talking to the band, and we go from there. Fortunately I've been blessed with very professional attitudes from the bands I've worked with, and when I've come up with basic images they've been accepted pretty much the way I've presented them. But I'm always looking for input, if I trust the people I'm working with. For example, when I was working on The Mars Volta Octahedron cover, which was very collaborative, at one point Cedric sent me an email about a part of the image. Cedric's a very visual person, so I've always liked it when he had a suggestion, because he seems to consider things pretty carefully, and makes suggestions with a great deal of respect. There's a lobster in that image, and Cedric wrote and asked if I might be willing to drop a hurdy-gurdy in on top of the lobster's head. Due to the fragmentary nature of that image, a hurdy gurdy was a perfect fit, so it went into the overall picture. But it depends on the suggestion - what you might call a fortunate accident, or a sudden inspiration.
The thing to keep in mind is that each cover, each image, occurs in a different way. No two ever seem to happen the same way. And again, I've been very fortunate in the people I've been able to work with.
Every artist in ANY genre/media needs to develop not only artistic skills--they also need to realize it's a business, and that the most important part of the music business is DISTRIBUTION. To have recorded an album is NOTHING, in itself, if nobody hears it, or isn’t aware an album even exists. It's not enough to create an album, if time isn't taken to make people aware of it. This is where the business end of it comes into play, but not only that. When people see an album, the thing they see before they even hear the music is the cover. I was fortunate enough to learn this from conversations with Omar and Cedric. In every way, when I came into the music biz by doing covers for The Mars Volta, I came in at the top of the food chain; not only working for an internationally recognized band, but also a band that was signed to a major label. I was old enough and lucky enough to learn very quickly that covers are as important as the music inside the packaging. The cover has to be as engaging to the eye of the viewer as the music is to the ear of the listener. If the cover is boring or slipshod, people will assume the same about the music.
That being said, musicians need to understand that doing covers is a business I engage in, and I can't pay the bills on eternal gratitude. WHY do young musicians think I'm as idealistic in my early 60s as I was in my early 20s? I have a mortgage to pay off and everything that comes with it. One time some young guy sent me an email telling me his band was going to use one of my images for their CD cover, and just wanted to know if it was OK. No "Please" or "Thank You." I wrote back and said "NO, it's NOT OK for you to RIP ME OFF." In that way, my beginning my Album Cover journey at the top of the food chain was a problem, because not only did I get a lot of exposure, but I was also paid very well, I later found out. And I can never understand the mind set that The Mars Volta organization paid me a lot of money for my covers, which take a long time for me to do, but that these young guys in some band, who've never even toured and have no understanding of how the business works, think I'll want to do a cover for complete unknowns with no track record at all, for Zero bucks. Put down the bottle, put down the pipe, and wake up to Reality.
Why do you think music CD sales have been declining in the last 10 years?
Blame it on the Internet, I suppose. When I was in my 20s I always seemed to gravitate to like-minded people who loved music and were always looking for the next big thing. We generally pooled our musical resources [vinyl exclusively] and increased the music that was available to all of us. And we taped our faves, so yes, we were ripping off artists back then. Zoom ahead to now, and the Internet has increased the possibilities maybe a thousandfold. I personally like to see an Album Package and hold it in my hand with non-musical information and visuals, and lists of people who were involved in the creation of said Album Package, the way the artists intended. But it appears most people aren't so inclined. They're willing to settle for the music, and maybe don't even care about who and what. Funny story. Right after The Mars Volta released Bedlam in Goliath, I think it was, I had a show at a local gallery. Opening night was crazy, and we went to a local watering hole afterward. I was wearing my fake Armani jacket, and some young woman approached me--very drunk, I might add, not sure she wasn't a hooker - but not important. She asked who I was and where I'd been. I told her I was a local artist, not sure I wasn't a bit drunk, as well. She wasn't that aware of the local art scene - whatever. Then I told her I did album covers, and she asks, "Who for?" I said, “Mars Volta” and she's all 'I LOVE THE VOLTA!" I said, "I've done their last two covers," and she said, "I downloaded them…." I just laughed at her and walked away….
That being said, I just heard a segment about the state of the music biz on NPR a few days ago where they said there's never been a better or more opportune time to sell music with the advent of all the possibilities with the Internet. You just have to do it all yourself, which is like having several jobs. People with the energy to take care of the endless business necessities, in addition to putting in the aforementioned time to become accomplished creatives, have never had a more opportune time to succeed.
Doing crappy commercial work helped me figure out what I really wanted to do, and in the end I did gain skills and experience, both in creating useful images as well as how business works. In the end it's all about WORK. You can't gain the skills if you don't put in the hours, weeks, months, years. And I haven't even mentioned Desire. You have to WANT it more than anything else in the world. Desire to succeed might be the most important part, because without desire you won't struggle and pay the dues that everybody who's succeeded has paid. When I did The Mars Volta Amputechture cover, I used to say, "Thirty-five years later, I'm an Overnight Success." That being said, it's necessary to not rest on your laurels. You can't rely on having done a great album cover, song, etc., many years ago. Every opportunity is just that, and people will judge you by your most recent work. Otherwise it's "Wow, that guy did that great cover for such and such a band, many years ago, but everything since has either been of lower quality or an imitation of that great image from a long time ago." I remember reading an interview with Eric Clapton where he said in the Cream days, that he found it impossible to reach stratospheric heights of improvisation every single time they went on stage. You have to pace yourself and never settle for "close enough." People will know, even if you delude yourself into thinking a second rate image is the best, or as good as you can do. No rest for the weary, as they say. Or like Clint Eastwood said as Dirty Harry, "A man's gotta realize his limitations." You've always got to strive to become better at what you do.
How important is it for an artist to fulfill their desire to create a masterpiece in addition to making a living selling art that has commercial applications?
I don't think you can set out to create a masterpiece. I'm not even certain I've ever created a masterpiece, myself. I've done paintings I might've thought were masterpiece grade. I worked my butt of on those, and taken them as far as I felt was humanly possible, and say to myself "I can't take that any further." I'd be exhausted for a few days, in part because your mind is always working, even if your body isn't. And hopefully I'd go on to the next painting, and look at the one I'd taken as far as I could a few days before, and I'd say to myself "I wish I'd fixed that part, or taken that part a little further." It only seems to end when you're no longer capable of going beyond yourself, or you die. That’s the way I think of it, and that's the way the people I have total respect for, think about it. I’m absolutely my own worst critic, and if you don't go there, you'll never improve. For me there's no point at all in doing the work if I don't hope to get better.
Jeff Jordan is the American surrealist painter who is well-known for the artwork he provided for the Grammy Award winning band The Mars Volta. His painting, Agadez, serves as the cover art for The Mars Volta's fourth studio album, The Bedlam in Goliath, and was named by readers of Rolling Stone as the 2nd best album cover of 2008.
So you’re saying that it’s not too late for people as long as they hone their craft.
Well you have to stand behind your decision. That’s where they drop the ball. They are not willing to take themselves out of whatever lap of luxury that they are in. They are not willing to go that far. [And I say] “Well, you don’t really want it then.”
How important is it to create something that is unique?
I think that’s the most important part. If I tried to tailor what I do for the market, I would have no idea what I’d be doing.
Where does an artist traditionally sell their work and how has the Internet changed that?
I advertised in Juxtapoz magazine in order to find an art gallery. But the gallery system is just like the music business. Some gallery takes you on and you get a show. But they’re in business to make money for themselves and you are the ticket to making that money. They don’t really care about you. They’ll say you have to pay for shipping to the gallery. You have to pay for framing. And if nothing sells then you have to pay to get it shipped back. The gallery gets 50 percent of sales. At a certain point I just said to myself, “If I’ve got a website and I’ve got some exposure, I bet I could sell more paintings than I can working with a gallery.” [On the other hand] … last year I was approached by a gallery -it’s a couple of young guys in L.A. This was a result of work that I did for The Mars Volta. They are the nicest guys [who] … are doing it because they love art. I feel very fortunate in that regard because the business of selling art is desperate right now unless you are a top name. I believe if I didn’t have my vision and imagination I would be struggling today. In November I did a show with my good friend Sonny Kay, who does all the packaging for The Mars Volta. (He also works for Sargent House which is partly owned by Omar.) But I can sell globally on the Internet.
Storm Thorgerson did the covers for the first two Mars Volta records and was hired to do their third one, Amputechture. How did you ultimately wind up providing the art for that cover?
There’s a book out there, Taken by Storm, which is a history of Storm Thorgerson. He went to school with the guys in Pink Floyd and did their artwork. In that book, it says there were two failed attempts at the Amputechture cover. Omar told me that Storm said he could provide the third attempt two weeks before the physical release of the album. [At the same time] Omar was reviewing 2 to 300 replacements when he came upon my ad in Juxtapoz magazine. He said, “That was it!” It just jumped out at him. So, there’s my big break!
Jeff, when you sell the original painting do you still own the copyright?
Yes. I own the copyright unless the record company or another artist pays for it. When I do a cover it is for licensing and production.
Jeff, I appreciate your time today and hope that musicians who have read this are inspired to work with you or an artist of your caliber to make their CD artwork stand out.
My highest kudos to you as an interviewer. I totally appreciated every minute that we spent.
You can buy Jeff Jordan's artwork at his website:
Jeff, take me through a simple, yet ideal process of creating the artwork for a CD project. How much direction would you like to get from the band?
Probably the simplest process I went through was The Bedlam in Goliath images for The Mars Volta. The band was set to perform in Berkeley, California, and asked if I might be able to come down from Eureka and meet, in hopes of coming up with some images. The vast majority of my images are photo collages, so I took my collage books down and showed them to [members of the band] Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. They looked at the books over a couple hours and ultimately chose the collages that spoke to them, which saved me a lot of second guessing. When I asked Omar where he wanted me to take them, he told me, "I wouldn't want to tell you what to do, Jeff. That's your job." So I came home and just went for it. I found out later that Omar usually gives more direction than that. But for the most part I think Omar and I understand each other very well, and I really appreciated his trust. I felt I could give him what he wanted, and I guess I was right. The Agadez painting which eventually became the cover image came out #2 in Rolling Stone's "Top 50 Album Covers of 2008," and the band won a Grammy that year, as well.
To answer the second part of your question--for me, the less direction, the better. I have a certain vision that guides what I do in my personal work, and so far, at least, that seems to be what makes bands want to use me for cover work in the first place.
Indie songwriters and bands will often put out a CD without considering artwork. What suggestions can you recommend that would make their packaging more appealing and valuable?
I've been approached by a lot of young bands to do covers. Some young musicians need to develop a realistic attitude about being in a band. They don't consider the insane amount of work it takes to gain even a minor degree of recognition in the music world. I could never do it myself. Just the expense and wear and tear of being a working band is something I couldn't do, and the time necessary to hone the performing aspects, as well as creating memorable tunes, is beyond my level of patience. But it seems like wasted time to even think about doing an album if that time hasn't been spent. I've had young musicians send me YouTube links to ‘videos’ they have online, and it's just young guys sitting around in somebody's dorm room, drinking beer, and playing around with computer programs, telling themselves how great some little noise they made sounds. And these people think they're ready to do an album, and they want me to do a cover. Talk about living in a Dreamland….
What skills does an aspiring artist need to bring to the table that would allow them to create a great album cover?
Skills are skills, whether you play an instrument, write a book, or make a painting. You have to DO THE WORK. No matter what genre, when you're young you imitate your heroes and develop your skills. Later, if you've put in the time, you become yourself. Hopefully you also develop a good attitude about working with other people. I could stand to increase my skills in that area, as well. I tend to get bored with lame ideas presented by people who I consider a**holes, who don't understand the amount of energy it takes to create anything. So early on I had a lot of problems with commercial art--in other words, creating good work for the sake of making money. Further down the line I realized I was wasting my skills trying to make a living doing silly-a** illustrations for people who paid no money and didn't really care who did the work. Kinda like being a mailman who delivers all the junk mail on Tuesdays. For me it became a simpler proposition to get a day job--I worked in construction for many years. The advantage to me was that I didn't use creative energy doing volumes of work that meant nothing to me, then trying to do something along the lines of fine art when I'd already expended my creative energy. I could come home after work and my body was tired, but my mind was itching to do something I could put my heart into. Commercial work had a way of taking over my life, but doing construction assured the rent and bills were paid, and evenings and weekends were MINE. But one thing leads to another.
Musicians and artists generally think they need to be successful before reaching their thirties as the industry tends to focus on young people. Your major breakthrough came when you connected with Omar and Cedric from The Mars Volta, and you were in your fifties. What can you tell people who enjoy this business yet think they might be too old for it?
Do what you want to do. In my business, artists paint landscapes because they sell. I say, well I’ve done that. But my brain just isn’t wired to do that. Essentially, the way I look at it is landscape guys put themselves into a market that has existed for hundreds of years. They are feeding that market. My attitude is I create a market. People have said that they've never seen anything like what I'm doing. [And I say] “Well, you’re not looking at the surrealist can of art.” I want to feed a market that only I can supply. I tried to make a living at commercial art for many years. Someone would come along and underbid the job by a nickel. You find out that you’re wasting your time.