Liars, TFCF album cover. Mute.

The word “Ballardian” is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” There is no etymological date for the entry, so when the novelist J.G. Ballard’s name actually passed into the language as an adjective is unclear. Given that the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard hailed Crash as “the first great novel of the universe of simulation” a year after it was published, one can suppose Ballardianism was incubating, or even in its infancy, in 1974.

The Normal, TVOD, Warm Leatherette, 1978, cover. Mute.

Fast forward four years, and we can cast supposition aside and be certain of Daniel Miller’s contribution to the furthering of the Ballardian concept. The first single to appear on Mute—a label that was only ever intended to issue one release—was T.V.O.D. by The Normal. The Normal, for the uninitiated, was art student Miller’s nom de guerre—an electronic band of the imagination, fuelled by Ballard and Hubert Selby, Luis Buñuel, and Werner Herzog, and a love of experimental electronic music: Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk. The flipside to T.V.O.D. is Warm Leatherette, a song that wears its inspiration on its heated fabrikoid sleeve:

“A tear of petrol is in your eye / The hand brake penetrates your thigh / Quick, let’s make love before you die…”

The Normal, TVOD, Warm Leatherette, 1978, reverse. Mute.

In last year’s book, Mute: A Visual Document – From 1978 – Tomorrow, Terry Burrows writes: “T.V.O.D and Warm Leatherette were two sparse pieces of electronic minimalism constructed from short, simple repeating note sequences with a classic motorik rhythm—all generated using the monophonic Korg. Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Crash, the lyrics perfectly matched the stark sound, delivered as they were by Miller in a deliberate, clipped, emotionless monotone.” T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette had been released in the spirit of punk, if not with the same sonic execution. “The idea of putting out my own record came to me at the end of the punk era,” wrote Miller. “Like many of my generation, I was inspired by the raw noise, the attitude and the DIY ethos of punk. The music itself didn’t always interest me that much—though I loved the energy, I found a lot of it quite conservative.”

To compliment the DIY music, Miller’s friend Simone Grant (who worked on many of the label’s early releases) used characters from readily available sheets of Letraset. Rather than fork out for a font, many emerging labels of the time did the same. Mute went further though, co-opting the logo from a sheet of architectural Letraset symbols. The aerial impression of a “walking man” has remained its trademark ever since. As for the music, Miller considered the act of recording monaural notes on a cheap second-hand Korg 700S more punk than punk, given that you wouldn’t even have to learn three chords (the prerequisite for forming a punk band, according to legend). If putting a record out scratched an itch for Miller, he couldn’t have foreseen the success the 7” would generate. Released in April 1978, the single received plenty of nighttime airplay, column inches and, thanks to a distribution deal with Rough Trade, sold in the region of 15,000 copies.

Mute: A Visual Document Book cover

Burrows’ book is a fascinating insight into the workings of the label from its inception through four decades of great music. Written with Miller’s cooperation, it features extensive sleeve designs in an orange embossed hardcover with a stitched spine, perhaps representing the dichotomy of the glacial sheen of the music and the DIY ethos that underpins everything. It’s all there: from the enlistment of Frank Tovey’s girlfriend Barbara Frost for his early Fad Gadget cover art, through to multi-million selling albums by the likes of Moby, via Mute staff manually crossing out images of swastikas with marker pens for the German release of the Birthday Party’s Mutiny! (such imagery is illegal there).

40 years old this year, Mute has sold millions of records from the likes of Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Erasure, Goldfrapp, New Order, and many more. Though the label has boasted a world class roster with heavyweight acts for most if its existence, there’s always been an inveterate curiosity in the way the music is made and the product is designed, both from the artists and the label. There’s a little bit of The Normal in everything the label has ever done, as I discovered from Mute’s art director Paul A. Taylor.

Taylor began working at Mute in 1990. He says though the industry has changed almost beyond recognition in that time, Mute has continued to function in its day-to-day endeavours in much the same way as it always did. Even during the EMI years (they were occupied by the major label between 2002 and 2009) where budgets were tighter and shareholders had to be placated, working practices largely remained the same.

Taylor sees his job as split into three different roles, and that depends upon the kinds of budgets the acts in question command: “If we don’t have much of a budget then I’ll pretty much do everything myself. If we have a bit of a budget then I’ll bring a team together. If we have loads of budget then I’ll just oversee it and hire quite a big team to come in and do it.” Whatever the size of the campaign, Taylor says the seed of the aesthetic idea will invariably come from the artist themselves: “Nobody understands an album better than the artist. There’s no point doing something without a discussion with the artist. That can range from somebody not really having an idea, which to be honest is very rare. If that’s the case, I’ll usually tell them to have a think and come back to me with some words and maybe a couple of images. Then I’ll have a listen to the album and I’ll come back with some ideas. 90% of the time the artist will come with at least a direction.”

Nobody understands an album better than the artist.

The biggest campaign Taylor worked on was Depeche Mode’s The Singles 86-98. The band’s first collection, The Singles 81 – 85, had featured a treated image of the band that perhaps played up to their teen appeal and association with the New Romantics: bleached hair; leather jackets, plus Martin Gore’s naked torso. Borrowing the blueprint laid down by The Beatles with their red and blue albums was never under consideration (and not just because Martin’s naked torso might not be as firm 17 years later). Depeche Mode were “in a different place” according to Taylor, and they’d spent a fair amount of time shaking off their early image with the help of video director Anton Corbijn. The Dutchman’s crepuscular signature style as a photographer and video maker fitted the band’s journey to the dark side, and it became a working relationship where they trusted his instincts, and in most cases, gave him carte blanche. “Anton was such a huge turning point,” says Paul, “because that was the first time they were suddenly like: ‘Oh actually, we don’t need to worry about this. We’ve got this guy working on our visuals, our photos, our videos and we look good. We look cool. We’re not looking stupid,’ which was what they worried about for a while. Having Anton involved in that way took a lot of pressure off them in dealing with their visual identity as a band.”

If the symbiotic relationship worked perfectly, with little in the way of disagreement, there was one peculiar incident involving a shot of a horse’s backside during the video for Personal Jesus. It had to be recut for MTV in order to eradicate the offending equestrian derriere.

Gore told Uncut: “The shot of the horse’s arse comes when there’s all this heavy breathing on the track. I don’t know if Anton was consciously trying to be perverted, I think it was more coincidental that it happened at that point. These video people see things very strangely.” That little hiccup aside, Corbijn became more or less an ancillary member. So he was perhaps a little put out when the label decided to rest him for the 86-98 campaign. Miller and Taylor canvased a number of agencies to “come up with big ideas for a big campaign”, before settling on a strategy that wouldn’t need the band present at all. “So we went and presented these ideas to Depeche Mode, and the one that they favoured—which was fortunately mine and Daniel’s favourite as well—was the lightbox campaign that Intro presented. So we went away and developed that.”

Lightboxes were built, and Taylor, photographer Rick Guest and Anna Bergfors from the Intro agency, drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas in a small van taking shots for seven days. The first single brought out to promote the album—Only When I lose Myself—featured a picture of the “DM” of a lightbox reflected in a hotel room mirror. “We spent how much on a cover of a hotel room?” Miller was reputed to have said. But as the campaign unfolded, the locations became more expansive, featuring deserted towns, highways and ambitious landscape shots in the Yosemite mountains. “We could have done it in Photoshop I suppose, but it definitely wouldn’t have had that authenticity that fits with the band,” says Taylor. “It was a campaign that won a lot of awards too, so I was very proud of that.”  

Some artists come to Taylor with a very clear idea: “With Alison Goldfrapp for instance, it’s very, very clear. She’ll come with a mood board; ‘this is exactly how I want it to look. Now how do we get there?’ I’ll then work with Mat Maitland at Big Active, and we’ll put together how we feel we can achieve our ideas, from the photographer we use, the locations, what kind of illustrative style or collage style… realising a very definite idea she would have.”

Other artists are a little more vague: “Andy [Bell, of Erasure], will usually come and say, I’ve got this idea.” Erasure’s recent studio album World Be Gone features a Jacobean masthead in choppy waters with sunlight on the horizon. While it appears to be influenced by Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (unintentional it transpires), Bell was thinking more along the lines of another Medusa, taking his inspiration from the Ray Harryhausen films. “Andy couldn’t remember exactly which one, so we had to go away and watch five or six Sinbad films to try to figure out which film he was talking about.” Rather than Photoshopping the whole thing, Taylor decided to get the image painted, to give it a more ornamental, striking and antiquated look.  

Erasure, World Be Gone cover. Mute.

If Goldfrapp is clear about what she wants, and Erasure leave things a little more open-ended, then Jon Spencer is an artist who somehow makes the impossible possible. “Every time I work with Jon he completely changes the rules of everything,” says Taylor. The Blues Explosion frontman presented Taylor with a conundrum when he came to him with his  idea for the cover art of Now I Got Worry. “Jon said: ‘I want to print black on the cover and then print this image of me in black on top of it. I was like, “Okay, right, so a different colour black?’ He was like, ‘no, just black-on-black.’” The printer initially changed the ink to a Pantone black for the image of Spencer, creating a reddish image that was rejected. A new test sleeve was made with exactly the same black ink for the cover and the shot of the singer. “So I did it and it worked!” says Taylor, sounding surprised still. “And it was astonishing. It looked amazing. And it was another example of the processes being ignored by Jon. He’d say ‘I want you to go away and do it like this’, even though it makes no sense. It’s not something you would think of if you went to graphic design college. You might if you were doing fine art, but then would you necessarily end up doing graphic design? The way that Jon works illustrates how the artist can come to us with something we never would have thought of.”

Spencer then requested the text for the lyrics sheet be photocopied and then faxed to different fax machines around the Mute building and then scanned “so all the text had a kind of fucked up nature that you can’t digitally replicate”. It was an idea that stayed with Taylor, which he reprised in a slightly different way for the album Neuroplasticity by Canadian singer Ladan Hussein, who works under the pseudonymous Cold Specks. The calligraphy on the album sleeve is manually layered to give it a retro 3D effect. The lyric sheet was then created in a similar way by hand, photographed and scanned to give it “that rough effect”, according to Taylor. “I made it all slightly out of line so it’s not perfect. With the lettering slightly off, it took me ages, because Ladan kept coming back and saying I’d made a mistake. It’s easy to change if it’s in a computer format, but when you’ve scanned it all and it’s all just images, it can be pretty time consuming.” The cover art meanwhile was a shot of Ladan by celebrated rock photographer Steve Gullick, which he lit so it had a bright mid-century underground cinema ambience to it. Hussein’s direct influence for the shoot came from Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

From one transgressive iconoclast (Anger, not Cold Specks) to a group of them. Laibach made headlines around the world in 2015 when they became the first western group to play in North Korea, an event fellow countryman Slavoj Žižek called “the most fascinating cultural, ideological and political event of the 21st century”. The French artist Vanoir, who has collaborated long-term with the electro-industrial Slovenians as part of the Neue Slowenische Kunst art collective (or NSK), not only designed the current sleeve art but was involved with Liberation Day, the documented of the trip. “Laibach and NSK have been without any doubt the most influential artists in my career,” said Vanoir, “and since I was in charge of most of the visual elements for Laibach’s North Korean project, it was both logical and easy for me to dive into this fantastic and monumental project!”

The Sound of Music, which was released in November 2018 and was conceived in the DPRK itself, naturally alludes to the visit with typical sardonicism. Anyone who attended the Made In Korea exhibition at the House of Illustration last year will surely recognise an inspired imitation of an artistic milieu its hard to put one’s finger on. It’s a style that sits somewhere between achingly kitsch art and the exclusive paradise propagated by The Watchtower. The Guardian called it a “graphic tradition that, although not entirely uniform in style, has developed in near isolation inside a closed society.”

“It’s great: really strong and funny,” says Taylor. And controversial? “I don’t think their stuff is that controversial, I think it’s more fun than anything else, as well as thought-provoking. We just tightened it up a bit and added some foil blocking.”

Much conceptual thought went into Aaron Hemphill’s debut album as Nonpareils. The ex-Liars man’s Scented Pictures features what at first looks like a work of abstract expressionism, but “tactile and surprising, it gives you something you’re not particularly expecting,” says Taylor. Viewing the album digitally in the modern age, the cover art may look like some petals dropped onto a canvas on a first inspection. The back sleeve contains a reveal that will elude those listening to it on Spotify however. “With the digital you see these cut out pieces of paper,” says Taylor, “and then on the back cover are pictures of cherries that are full of hole punches. In a digital world, the listener wouldn’t get the kick out of it that someone who bought the physical product would.” The tactile effect, which attempted to replicate cotton weave from 10”s from the 1940s, was made from printed texture and an embossing plate. “Trying to solve problems like that on a smaller budget is quite rewarding,” he adds. “I was very proud of Aaron for wanting to do it.”

There’s a self confidence about Hemphill’s project that compliments—or maybe contradicts—Liars’ concomitant album TFCF, a more diffident and desolate character portrayed by the last remaining Liar, Angus Andrew. There’s a deliberate isolationism being communicated by Andrew, and even the inference that some kind of jilting has taken place. Whatever the exact intentions, it feels as though there’s a dialogue taking place between these records, a connection that Angus doesn’t deny: “I had actually originally considered the idea of a wedding/graduation portrait for Aaron and I as a symbol of our creative relationship,” he tells us. “We had effectively been in a marriage-like partnership for over a decade. When that ended, I still felt like the concept of the portrait was applicable. Releasing TFCF on my own was always going to be a dominant storyline.”

Liars, TFCF album cover. Mute.

The cover photo was shot in Los Angeles at a restaurant in Chinatown, before Andrew moved from there back to Australia. “We brought props like the naff balloons, white columns and ferns with us. We purchased the cake for $3 at a local Food Mart then decorated it with an old Liars logo. The fact that the cake came iced in red and white was fortuitous, as that red and white interplay became the palette and the impetus for how Liars and TFCF are laid out.” The cover also carries a “PARENTAL ADVISORY – explicit content” sticker which, in the age of fake news, was a complete fabrication. “I’ve always wanted one of these stickers on a Liars album but am not prone to writing lyrics with adult language. So I asked Paul A. Taylor at Mute and he said ‘doesn’t matter’. I like to think that it’s the emotional content, so explicit on TFCF, that warrants the sticker. And visually, it gives the cover a certain strength, akin to a 90s hip-hop record, that I love.”

And what of the wedding dress? As a visual motif it has featured at all of the live shows Liars have played for the last couple of years, and it has survived two albums (the second part, Titles With The Word Fountain, is available now digitally and on cassette). It’s inclusion is less Ballardian and more Dickensian. I wonder if, given the amount of time Andrew has spent in the dress, he has any special insights into what it might be like to be Miss Havisham?

“Honestly, I’m so glad you mention her! I’ve found it really eye-opening that in 2018 almost all discussion about TFCF has revolved around me wearing a dress. I just didn’t consider the idea that a man in a dress would be such a hot button issue these days. The bummer about this is that more interesting discussion points like Miss Havisham nearly always get glazed over.”