Our new Label Focus series shines a light on some of the most innovative and visually forward-thinking record labels, tracing their history through their artwork and design. Our second pieces looks at Because, the Paris-based label that wholeheartedly embraces the powerful symbiosis of graphic design and music known as French touch.
When Charlotte Gainsbourg released her latest album Rest earlier this year, the media unsurprisingly focused on the very personal lyrics she’d written about the deaths of her iconic father Serge in 1991 and her half-sister Kate Barry four years ago. Less attention-grabbing—but newsworthy nevertheless—was the fact she’d turned director, conceiving and shooting all of the videos herself. Lying With You, in particular, is a ghostly vignette shot in her late father’s crepuscular and perfectly preserved old residence at 5bis rue de Verneuil in Saint-Germain; a darkly fascinating portrait of grief, shot skilfully by a singer who is perhaps best known as an actress.
Gainsbourg’s motivation came from the director Lars Von Trier, though not in the way one might expect. She’d asked him to make her video for the title track of the album and he’d told her to do it herself. The suggestion could just as easily have come from her record label, Because. Because is a recording company where artists love to get involved in all aspects of the product. Indeed, few houses have embraced gesamtkunstwerk [“total artwork”] quite as fervently since the Secessionists of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Even at Ed Banger, a subsidiary label based in Paris, the artists have a keen eye for visual detail. Breakout dance duo Justice are both graphic designers who met at a party for instance, and while the story of Ed Recs is one for another day, Gaspard Auge from the band still moonlights as graphic artist the Gaspirator when he’s not bringing mayhem to the dancefloors of the world’s greatest cities.
Because came into being in 2005, set up by former Virgin Records France and EMI Europe head honcho Emmanuel de Buretel. The music industry veteran’s resumé is formidable, with his achievements including everything from signing Daft Punk in the late 90s to championing hip hop in France, picking up a knighthood along the way as a member of the Ordre des arts et des lettres. Buretel established an office in Paris in the edgy 9th arrondissement, and across la Manche in east London soon after.
Aaron Larney, head of art and design on the UK side, has been working for Because for just under 10 years, liaising with artists like Django Django, Metronomy, Denai Moore, and Klyne in order to make their music come alive visually. He describes Buretel as “an incredible character who’s not afraid to speak his mind”. Buretel was instrumental in bringing bands like Daft Punk and Air to an international audience, and the influence of French touch—where music and graphic design forged such a powerful symbiotic relationship—is fundamental to the Because brand. Larney says, “Because has managed to incorporate a lot of artwork and audio with nice French touch elements to it.”
Les Arts Décoratifs museum in Paris ran an exhibition dedicated to French touch in 2013, and the press release noted “that graphic design and music had never been as closely associated in France as they were between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, with electronic music forging its own visual identity.” The strong symbiosis “between graphic designers and emerging independent labels was shaped by constraints and simple principles such as the absence of a photo budget, the musicians’ desire to remain anonymous, or the advent of [the] Apple Macintosh and its easy-to-use graphic interface.”
While Because has conquered the independent market, and budgets aren’t necessarily meagre, it carries the anarchic disciplines of cut and paste, collage, and a free-for-all spirit that has proliferated thanks to the availability of technology. Larney says artwork created before the advent of computers was more mechanical and less technical: “It was kind of more specialist too. In the same way you can make music at home with computers and it’s a lot easier, artwork has gone the same way. If you’re Photoshop literate and you’ve got the right mindset and know what you want to do, then you can create it.”
Emmanuel de Buretel’s partner in crime is Olivier Carrié, better known as Uncle O, who designed the distinctive handwritten Because logo. The pair have worked and even studied together, and Carrié’s reputation was forged long before French touch, making a name for himself designing legendary flyers for new wave artists like The Cure, OMD, and Fad Gadget back in the early 80s, when he moved from Lyon to Paris.
“As an art history student, I began to take an interest in the Bauhaus school and the Constructivist movement—Malevich, El Lissitzky, and the Soviet and Chinese propaganda posters,” he told Vice in 2014. “I wasn’t paid for the designs. On the other hand, I was allowed into all these gigs and sometimes was even given a small guestlist. When I was lucky, the guys gave me credit to buy records at the local record stores.” Since then he’s produced album covers for the Rolling Stones, Texas, les Rita Mitsouko and hundreds more, and he’s responsible for the visual identity of the concert hall La Cigale in Montmartre. The avuncularly monikered one also oversees compilations like 2013’s Cosmic Machine: A Voyage Through French Cosmic & Electronic Avantgarde and 2016’s Cosmic Machine: The Sequel, with the tracklists mostly derived from his own record collection.
The UK operation
The office in London is less glitzy and populated than across the English Channel, says Larney, but a similar ethos prevails. Where there are around thirty full time staff in Paris, it was just him and label chief Jane Third (now at Pias) for a long time, and there are usually around six staff on the UK side, some of them freelancers. As for the artists, Larney says that 99% of the time they have an idea of where they want to go visually after working on the material for an album for years. “They might not know exactly what they want, but they have strong ideas regarding the direction they want to go in, definitely.”
Joseph Mount of Metronomy had a strong visual influence that informed the making of 2011’s The English Riviera, and ultimately with some detective work, the label was able to locate the actual source. Growing up in Torquay, Devon, on the English west coast, Mount had been inspired during the making of the album by a piece of nostalgia, namely the Hockney-esque palm tree posters distributed by the Devon Tourist Board in the 1980s, by the lauded graphic designer John Gorham. “We tried to get in touch with the designer but he’d died a while back,” says Larney. “We found the tourist board down there and licensed it from them, and spoke to John’s widow and got the transparency negative slides and built the high res from that. The artwork for the single, The Bay, was done by John as well. Because he did lots of artwork for the English Riviera, there were lots of different versions of that style with the really clean-cut colours, the yellows and blues, incorporated.”
The Daniel Brereton-directed video for The Bay aims to glamorize the Devon coast with maybe a touch of irony, and the local tourist board were only too happy to get on board, closing roads and providing helicopters for aerial shots. “When we told the French the name The English Riviera they were very amused that we thought we have a riviera,” Larney says, laughing. “It went down pretty well there.” To finish the job, the lettering in the booklet came from an old Letraset font that was no longer commercially available, to create what Larney describes as a “not too designed” look. “It’s not a formatted type,” he adds, “so they formatted it and we had to commission it through them.”
Great lengths of a different kind were gone to to create the shimmering effect for Django Django’s forthcoming LP Marble Skies (out January 26, 2018), although they didn’t have to travel far in the end to get what they wanted: “The inspiration was from looking out under water and looking up. I think the initial idea was looking out from below water at marble skies whilst drowning, which I know sounds a bit dark. That was kind of the brief.” Plans were afoot to fly out to Croatia, then lidos across London were contacted with the intention of hiring one out. Eventually the team would travel up to the free children’s lido at the Lordship Recreation Ground in Tottenham, north London, to shoot photos underwater at 7a.m. before any children turned up. “It’s a public lido,” says Larney, “and by 8.30a.m. or 9a.m. on a nice summer’s day, it would fill up, so we’d have to move on.” He adds that while it isn’t particularly deep, there was enough water to “make that rippling, distorted view of the world through water.”
The crescent shaped balloon on the cover was originally intended to be joined by other images, including a red telephone box, but simplicity prevailed. Some versions also carry an obi strip with symbols of water, air, and so on across it. The album image is also surrounded by a ripply blue frame that creates a trompe l’oeil effect. “That was a picture of the sky by Jim [Dixon] from the band that they really liked. And [bandmate] Dave Maclean came up with that pink and gold balloon floating above the water.” All of the members of Django Django are art school graduates, and when they signed to Because they already had most of the picture art for their eponymously titled debut album ready. The cut-and-paste image of microscopic penicillin overlaid on sand dunes was intended to convey a tongue-in-cheek message about drugs and a break with rock ‘n’ roll convention— they represent drugs that are good for you, rather than the ones that will get you high.
“They like having fun with the artwork,” says Larney. “Tommy [Grace] from Django Django is a really talented graphic designer. All of their artwork is really Tommy and Dave with a strong aesthetic, using classic elements with cut and paste and lots of symbolism.” Django Django’s bricolage style also has shades of another band, The Beta Band, and it should perhaps come as no surprise that David Maclean is the brother of John Maclean of the seminal 90s indie four-piece. Maclean Sr went to art school in Edinburgh and has recently made some well-received short films starring Michael Fassbender.
Soul singer Denai Moore doesn’t have an art school background, but she had a fair idea of what she wanted visually, or rather who she wanted to use, for her album Elsewhere; a “debut soaked in sadness,” according to the Guardian. Larney says the availability and proliferation of art on the internet often means artists will come to him with images from Instagram or Tumblr, as well as the desire to do something similar. In Denai Moore’s case, she was a fan of Leif Podhajsky’s Melt blog, a surreal and psychedelic exploration of images and ideas. Artists he’s made great artwork for in the past include: Foals, Awa, Bonobo, and Lykke Li.
“Denai, who’s a really big fan of Leif’s work, kind of gave him carte blanche,” says Aaron. “She was happy with all of his previous works for other artists. I think she really liked the bright colours and the surreal nature of the landscape and the small characters she wanted included in it.” The artwork for Elsewhere is darker and more abstract than, say, The English Riviera. “It has a dark underside I guess. One of her early EPs is called Saudade, which is Portuguese for missing. She definitely has that tinged through a lot of her work. She’s an amazing singer songwriter, and so young it’s incredible. I think when she was 17 or 18 when she wrote those songs.”
There’s also a dark underbelly in the slickly produced, electroclash-inspired stylings of Klyne, a soulful indietronica duo from Eindhoven, via war-torn Afghanistan in the case of musician Ferdous Dehzad, while singer Nick Klein’s mother arrived in the Netherlands as a refugee from Indonesia. It’s a worldly metropolitan sound, and to try to capture the musical innovation on their self-titled debut, Jane Third commissioned multimedia artist and director Margot Bowman.
“Again, dark underside seems to be a running theme here,” says Aaron. “Margot had this amazing idea of using a flatbed scanner. It gives you a real depth of field and the light is really unusual.” A flatbed scanner is designed to take pictures of documents ideally, and the effect of using human models makes it appear as though they’re submerged in a strange, obsidian world. “It’s on a table and it almost looks like they’re trying to climb into the scanner. The pictures are moving ever so slightly just to get amazing effects, and there’s glitter and bits and pieces on there.” With a bounty of great images, singles and a b-sides EP purloined from the album also had similarly themed artwork.
Another label that licences its music to Because is Erol Alkan’s Phantasy. Larney worked closely with New Zealand-born artist Connan Mockasin on his far out debut Forever Dolphin Love from 2010. While the image on the cover looks like it might be a drawn piece of collage, it was actually a photograph of a self-portrait with a difference. “He made a very creepy doll of himself and wanted that photographed,” say Larney, laughing. “I think it was his handwriting on the back of it. It’s a visually autobiographical piece of him in a way.
“It’s a similar deal with Connan where has really strong views on everything he likes. So I was working with him to make his dreams come true in a way.”