The mythology surrounding 4AD’s early years has endured beyond the average life expectancy of most independent labels. As one of the big four indies from the early days alongside Factory, Mute, and Rough Trade, perhaps only Factory has been the subject of more hagiography. When still under the auspices of co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell, the design work of 4AD “felt like you were peeking into a carnival full of beautiful freaks who didn’t want to be seen,” according to Richard Vine in the Guardian in 2012. He went on: “What is it about a record label that makes it the sort of place you want to spend time in? When it first emerged in the 1980s, 4AD felt like one of the most enigmatic worlds, the sort of label that you wanted to collect, that brought a sense of ‘brand loyalty’ way before it occurred to anyone to talk about music in such crass terms.”
Bands like the Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus and the Birthday Party made 4AD the home of goth in the early 80’s, while an infusion of the touched genius of Boston’s the Pixies and other American bands like Throwing Muses, and later the Breeders, kept things spiky and interesting. And speaking of touched, we can go no further without mentioning Vaughan Oliver, legendary graphic designer whose company 23 Envelope with photographer Nigel Grierson was instrumental in maintaining 4AD’s aesthetic identity between 1982 and 1988. Paul McMenamin and Chris Bigg formed v23 with Oliver when Grierson left, and Bigg incidentally designed the sleeve for the recently released Breeders album All Nerve. Oliver, who studied graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic and was inspired by the stylized and sexualized sleeve designs for art school glam five-piece Roxy Music and the Dalí-esque conceptual work of Storm Thorgerson from Hipgnosis, brought further mystery and eccentricity to the table.
“This is a man who, for one particular sleeve image, stripped down to his underpants in a suburban London flat, strapped on a belt of dead eels and enacted a fertility dance for the camera,” wrote Martin Aston in his book Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD. “To say Vaughan Oliver is a character is an understatement.” (The album he was working on, for the record, was Pod by The Breeders). Aston’s is an exhaustive history of the early years with interviews with Oliver and the elusive Watts-Russell among many others. A fine read it is too, but it also means those years have been covered in depth. Oliver himself has just successfully crowdsourced an Archive book, which promises to reveal the best of his work stored at the UCA Epsom. There hasn’t been a movie yet—like 24 hour Party People—but you wouldn’t bet against one. “Whilst 4AD’s story may be less sensational and populist than Factory’s,” writes Aston, “it is equally gripping, the label’s A&R vision being that much greater, and its subsequent cast of characters even more satisfying and beguiling”.
Things have changed since Ivo handed 4AD over to Beggars Banquet chief executive Martin Mills in 1994, and sold up completely at the turn of the century, sequestering himself in the New Mexico desert. Of those previously alluded to big four, Mute had a dalliance with EMI before turning independent again (besides some distribution deals on its back catalogue with BMG), Factory no longer exists, and Rough Trade is now a subsidiary of the Beggars Group alongside 4AD, and Matador, XL Recordings, and Young Turks. It may be a crowded marketplace, and there are no friendly rivalries to match that of Vaughan Oliver and Factory’s Peter Saville for instance, but 4AD has come into its own again in recent years.
“I suppose it went through a period where it was finding its feet again,” says Alison Fielding, who joined Beggars in 1992 and is head of creative across all five labels. “I suppose people saw it as quite ethereal, although there were bands like Pixies and The Breeders who are in your face. It’s a massively eclectic label now, which makes it very exciting when you’re dealing with different types of music rather than a label that focuses on one specific genre. I think a lot of labels have done that actually, starting off with one kind of music and diversifying. I don’t think it’s necessarily through choice, it’s more a case of: ‘there’s good music out there, we want to sign it.’”
While clearing out her parents’ loft a couple of years ago, Fielding came across and retrospectively identified the artwork for Boy by U2 as the seminal cover that would inspire her—on an unconscious level at least—to eventually go to art college and pursue a career in design. As well as working for Beggars Group, she and her partner have their own creative agency, Gas Associates, which has—among much other design work—produced the recent David Bowie box sets. “When you think of Boy, you think of the fantastic image, but when you look at the back of it, the typography is very clumsy,” she says with the benefit of hindsight and years of design experience. “Like a lot of early typography on the back of albums it’s about experimentation and getting to know what works and what doesn’t, and for me it’s not too great. But the actual cover is really iconic.”
Fielding’s first day at Beggars involved a photoshoot for former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy for his album Holy Smoke, shot by the famous Dutch photographer and director Anton Corbijn. “I got the job, and then on the first day they said ‘can you go on this photo shoot?’” recalls Fielding. “It was Pete Murphy, and Bauhaus were my favourite band. And I had no idea who Anton Corbijn was at the time. I went to this massive photo shot, all these assistants, catering, the lot. There’s Pete Murphy and smoke machines and Anton Corbjin bossing everyone around. I thought that was how my job was going to be every day.”
Lavish, no-expense-spared photoshoots are rarer now than they once were. Fielding remembers a shoot for Natasha Atlas where the whole team was flown out to Egypt, and while lots of photographs were taken it was also a four day jolly with a trip to the pyramids thrown in: “I suppose in those days using someone like Anton Corbijn would have been a £10,000 photoshoot, which was a lot of money then, and it’s still quite a lot of money now. But they have a lot of expenses too: staff, set up etc, so that’s a lot to do with why they are so expensive as well. You get photographers like him, or Rankin, whose fees are very high. But a lot of times if they want to collaborate with an artist, even if they’re big names, then they will work within the parameters.”
Rankin collaborated on the last album by Canadian musician Grimes. Claire Boucher takes Gesamtkunstwerk to the next level as a producer, singer, videomaker, artist and musician. The Art Angels artwork presented a challenge in bringing together Boucher’s lo-fi manga-inspired drawings with Rankin’s more glossy fashion motifs: “Those photos were absolutely beautiful. And so there were these beautiful high-end images with these sort of DIY illustrations. Grimes creates all her own artwork, the whole thing is a visual world and she’s involved in every aspect visually, whether it’s the videos or the illustration. She’s quite a phenomenon creatively.”
Grimes set up an Instagram account for fans’ homages to her style of work and her own poster art. Each track was revealed on social media with an illustration as a teaser, and she also made a number of memorable videos, including the vibrantly-coloured, Marie Antoinette-themed ‘Flesh Without Blood’.
In practical terms, Boucher liaises with the office in London from her home in the U.S. via email and phone calls, and then when she’s in the UK, ideas are discussed about layout, and Fielding says: “She really has a clear idea of what she wants and it’s definitely her project, much like her music really. She’s an example of someone who has a very clear idea of what she wants in every aspect.”Fielding exhales slightly and there’s a hint of a nervous titter when she says this, and you sense there can be creative tensions. A piece by Laura Snapes appeared in the Guardian a few days after our interview alluding to discontent and deleted Instagram posts by Boucher. Even in 2015, Grimes was griping about input from the label in the same paper, but she is contracted to 4AD for another album. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.
Tune-Yards (or tUnE-yArDs if you’re feeling adventurous) is another artistically creative female artist with an alias. From New England in the north east of the U.S., Merrill Garbus is musically adventurous and eclectic like Grimes. “Merrill really is one of the loveliest artists to work with,” says Alison. “She’s somebody who is very self-assured. Merrill worked on her first two albums—Whokill and Nikki Nack—with an artist called Alex Chitty. I think they met each other from doing some stand up comedy.”
Garbus sees her albums as a series, and on the first two, she and Chitty worked with texture and college, with Whokill “all diagonal lines and different colors and textures”; and Nikki Nack “a patchwork look with the layering of objects”. Fielding says Garbus collates Pinterest boards to connect with the work during the process. “On Nikki Nack they used this… I’m not sure what it is?” she laughs. “But it’s this American sweet that’s like a sheet of something that rolls up. It’s basically a roll of sugar with some coloring and they thought it looked really gross. It’s this disgusting roll of sugar floating on a glove in 3D effect.”
Fielding worked closely with Garbus on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Tune-Yards’ most recent album: “It was great to have lots of material to work with from her. Shots she’d taken of herself on a really old film camera, plants around the house, photos of her band… And everything she sent me was really energetic and joyous, and it gave me this kind of energy for the project.”
They toyed with different hand-painted types, then made a number of collages with what they’d come up with for the interior. “Initially we thought it would be a black-and-white image for the cover, but Merrill suggested bringing some blocks of color and glow for the front image. And I thought, ‘this isn’t going to work’. I was very reticent. But then I realised it did work in the end. It’s an example of the artist saying what they want, and in the end the result had more impact.”
The layered images worked well on various social media platforms too. An in-house video directed by Michael Speed was made for ‘Look At Your Hands’ featuring the hands from the cover as a motif running through the video, with Garbus’ handwriting and many of her black-and-white stills mangled together in a jittery stop motion four-minute promo. It was apparently cheap to make but time consuming.
The Lemon Twigs are a band with a strong, colorful aesthetic inspired by glam rock, while their music reflects a more playful Americana. The Long Island siblings, Brian and Michael D’Addario, are a prodigal duo who like to experiment with their music, their hair, their vintage clothes, and the tone of the designs from project to project.
“They’re very young and exciting and they’re sort of bursting with ideas,” says Fielding. “We have an office in New York as well, and one of the very talented team over there did loads of variations on the logo, and the one on their album Do Hollywood is obviously the one he got to eventually. For the sleeve idea, we went through a lot of vintage records and came up with a huge number of alternatives for the cover. But I think part of the process with them is to go down lots of different routes. If they’re into something they’ll ask, ‘can we have a look at what this is going to look like?’ We used a photographer called Autumn de Wilde in the end, and it’s a very strong image of them on the cover. Their videos are also very eclectic, a bit like Grimes.”
An EP of material that didn’t make Do Hollywood called Brothers of Destruction dispenses with the vibrant colours and sunlight and instead references horror films with its red filter.
“We’re starting to work on some new art now and again it’s in a totally different direction, so I think that’s the thing about how bands sort of develop as their music develops.”
A band who have developed an enviable fanbase over the years is The National. With Sleep Well Beast they’ve become one of the big beasts out there, taking the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, and nominated for Best Recording Package for a campaign that was dreamt up with Pentagram partner Luke Hayman. It’s fair to say the agency is more used to corporate commissions than rock and roll assignments.
“They previously did all their own artwork, and Scott [Devendorf] in the band—and I think Matt [Berninger] actually—were previously graphic designers,” says Fielding. “So what they wanted to do is a slightly tongue-in-cheek corporate-looking identity campaign, and they even came up with branded stationery, staplers, Post It notes… I don’t think they materialised in the end because it was too expensive! The idea was this sort of pastiche of 1970’s corporate branding.”
The exterior is representative of the band’s studio in Upper State New York, with the HQ taking on aspects of a corporate firm; slick, professional and business like (ergo: cold). This is offset by the inlay sleeve with photographs of the band by Graham MacIndoe juxtaposing their humanity against the metallic greys of the cover. “Inside it’s a lot warmer,” says Fielding. “The colours are orangey and it looks like a fanzine or something, so it’s a massively sharp contrast from the front cover. It obviously shows the warmth of the band in the process of recording.”
If The National used the figurative shape of a shed with Hopper-like fenestration, then Sohn went for more abstract geometric shapes with his last album, Rennen. Christopher Michael Taylor, the south London-born solo singer, worked with a Mexico City-based designer called Daniel Castrejon, who specialises in spatial and mathematical symmetrical lines and concentric shapes with clean colors: “I think there was a really good visual connection between the singles and the album with these geometric shapes, and the aesthetic works beautifully with all these really bright colours. It’s a really strong project visually.”
Fielding worked with Sohn on his debut album, and a desire to capture his glacial, crisp, ambient sound led unsurprisingly perhaps to the cinematic and forbidding landscape of Iceland. They chanced upon the work of Carla Fernández Andrade whilst literally flicking through Flickr: “Iceland is a beautiful landscape; you can point a camera and it’s just sort of there,” says Fielding, “but there’s a really beautiful dream-like quality to her images. It’s near that active volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, and there’s this solitary enigmatic figure on a manmade road with the dramatic backdrop of the natural environment. The back is a similar figure set in front of a bleak landscape. And then there’s this contrast inside: we worked on a typography that is very simple but it was a labor of love to get there. There’s a very milky feel to the whole package, lots of whites and pockets of blue, and it sort of lends a gentle touch with the grey type and his music as well. We thought it would be a beautiful cover.”
Given cost constraints, there was no sending the whole team to Reykjavik on a four day jolly this time.
“People probably thought it was him on the cover and it wasn’t,” she says, laughing. “It’s just a random figure. We couldn’t afford to go to Iceland to do a photoshoot. We never said it was him, we never denied it wasn’t him either.”