From the Archive; Vaughan Oliver interview

Pod by The Breeders, 1990, released by 4AD, designed by V23, photography by Kevin Westenberg

Pod by The Breeders, 1990, released by 4AD, designed by v23, photography by Kevin Westenberg

Here’s another interview from the unpublished series done for the Sound Design exhibition, which I curated for the British Council back in 2000. Vaughan Oliver’s work, as the studio known both as v23 and 23 Envelope, has been described as ‘graphic design for designers’; and while some people find it is difficult to decipher, it treats the initiated to a mix of undiluted wildness and superb craft. Indeed, it continues to win new fans, as Unit Edition’s successful Kickstarter campaign suggests. The aim is to publish a lavish ‘archive’ of Vaughan’s work, drawn from the extensive collection at the University of the Creative Arts, Epsom, where Vaughan is Visiting Professor of Graphic Design. Over the years, Vaughan has been a high-profile member of the graphic design community, participating in events and interviews, while his work has been collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum. This won’t be the first book about Vaughan either; Rick Poynor’s Vaughan Oliver: Visceral Pleasures was published by Booth-Clibborn Editions (who I worked with at the time), and designed by Vaughan himself, also in 2000.

Vaughan Oliver, interviewed by Liz Farrelly on 18/7/2000.

Liz Farrelly: How did your connection with 4AD start?

Vaughan Oliver: My interest in music graphics goes back to being a kid and the idea of combining my twin passions, music and visual arts.

LF: Did you ever want to be a pop star?

VO: Not really. I thought about that recently though and don’t know why I didn’t, probably because I can’t sing and I can’t play music, but I could have changed my mind when it seemed that that wasn’t essential. It all started at school and the way to realise that ambition was to go and study graphic design, and once I was ensconced in Newcastle, I still had it as an ambition at the back of mind but I was very interested in illustration. I wasn’t very keen on graphic design and typography. I showed an unhealthy bias toward illustration because I thought it allowed for personal expression and I didn’t see much opportunity for that in the problem-solving graphic design as it was taught in those days.

I went to college between 1976 and 1979, and was discouraged from designing record sleeves. A tutor said, that’s not a job for a grown-up man, you can’t be a record sleeve designer full-time, it doesn’t really exist; but Hipgnosis would prove otherwise. He said there wasn’t much call for it and you’d have to be a friend of the band. It was a bit of an old-fashioned idea, but let’s say I was discouraged. My best friend, who I was at school with and shared art lessons with was Nigel Grierson, and he followed me to Newcastle; he was very strong on the photographic side and we did a lot of projects together. He did his college placement at Hipgnosis, which he organised himself. So he got an idea of how the industry worked and that you really could get a job doing record sleeves. He came back with tales of Storm Thorgerson [1944-2013] who is definitely a character.

I came to London and took my portfolio around for a couple of weeks but wasn’t getting anywhere with illustration. I wasn’t a great illustrator, but that was how I was realising my ideas. I was stronger on ideas, and so I sidestepped into graphic design in a packaging design studio, which is where I learnt about typography. I was doing that for about a year when I bumped into Ivo Watts-Russell, the guy who started 4AD, and it was an opportune moment of which I’ve taken full advantage. Somebody was supposed to be presenting a sleeve to him and they couldn’t do it. I went along to see him and he very faithfully said, oh a Diane Arbus print (which I’d turned into a two-colour screen-print), that’s exactly the image we’re trying to get permission to use on a Modern English sleeve. I said, oh that’s useful! And we got on; we’d see each other at the same gigs.

4AD came out of New Wave and Punk and had a reputation for melancholia, and it had an element of that but it’s a very broad label, though it’s categorised and pigeonholed as an early-80s, long raincoat, goth-style thing. But at the same time you had Colourbox who wrote Pump up the volume in 1986 [released 1987], and that was the beginning, the first record that credited DJs, with Dave Dorrell and C.J. Macintosh, it inspired a genre, the collage of sound. Also BAD [Big Audio Dynamite] had a very similar sound. And there was the Cocteau Twins, that wispy, ethereal music, for bonking to, my words, and the Pixies in the late-1980s and there would have been no Nirvana without the Pixies, as Kurt Cobain is well documented in saying. So I think there’s enough range there to have been a part of that, and speaking in the past tense because I think it’s a period that has passed with 4AD and it’s troughed and now it’s starting up again. It lost its way a bit because the main man went to the states and semi retired and has now retire, relinquished anything to do with 4AD.

I met Ivo back in 1980 and did that Modern English sleeve and I’d pester him at gigs, saying, you need a logo, you need some consistency in your design. And so he gave me freelance jobs; meanwhile I was working at Michael Peters and Partners, doing wine labels. In 1983, Ivo got an office in Wandsworth and said, come in and do it full time. There was only him and me, so he was splashing out on this full-time record sleeve designer hoping I was going to do a lot more, because I can get a little bit blabby after a couple of pints, but he thought I could do all the promotional material and I used to do a bit of warehouse work and then take a terribly long time on record sleeves. But I was there because he really believed the packaging should reflect the music in a qualitative fashion; and he was putting out music for his own record collection and wanted it packaged in a way he was going to be happy with, so we were both music obsessives. He understood what I was trying to do and he generally gave way. Six months later he’d come to me and say, oh, I see what you were doing now. It was a corporate identity but it grew organically…a word we used to use back then.

LF: What were the elements?

VO: There were alternative labels like Factory Records that seemed to have a manifesto and were very keen on putting across a label identity through the packaging. We wanted ours to evolve. We wanted the label to be known for having a qualitative output, but not for having a look. I think a look developed and if you put the range of it out in front of you there is a depth to it, but essentially because it’s coming from one desk up to 1987 when Chris Bigg joined. There are visual links, a love of texture, and to my mind that is information that’s informing you about the texture of the music, or ideas in the music. It’s the feel of the music that we were always trying to reflect.

LF: How much do you know about the music when you’re designing the sleeve?

VO: All of it; sometimes it’d just be demo tapes but that was the beauty of being on the spot.

LF: Were you on the spot as far as signing bands was concerned as well?

VO: I was an ear for Ivo. He’s quite an enigmatic A&R man, he’s often been cited as the experts’ expert by people within the industry, a tremendous ear and able to see potential. I remember hearing the Pixies and thinking, what does he see in them, and to me now they’re one of the biggest inspirations on the label in the past 20 years, for me personally, but I couldn’t hear it in the original tapes. Dead Can Dance was one of the bands I had to push on him. I was very enthusiastic about them, but I wouldn’t say I had a lot of influence. I think the reason I was working with him was because I was sympathetic to what he was doing, so I didn’t offer a particularly opposite or hyper critical point of view. I was agreeing.

LF: Tell me about all the strange materials you use, squids and eels and stuff, and the odd juxtapositions?

VO: The photographers bring a lot to the work.

LF: Have you always had an open-door policy to seeing and working with photographers?

VO: Yes. Initially it started off with Nigel Grierson. I started working at 4AD full-time and got Nigel to show his portfolio and he did some projects by himself, an early Cocteau Twins 12-inch and an album and a Modern English album while I was doing other stuff, and then we’d combine on certain projects; and from the first time we combined we started using the name 23 Envelope.

LF: Why that name?

VO: It was whimsy really and the reason for using that kind of name was because generally design groups had proper ‘name’ names, and that seemed boring, and it literally came from a packet of envelopes next to us and from a number off the top of my head, if I even had to think of a number it would always be 23; so it’s as irrational and whimsical as that. I don’t think 4AD meant anything either but it has come to mean something in the world of music. While I talk about it being irrational and whimsical, I still wanted a sense of quality in the work and it came through the use of textures, and often wrapped around a sleeve so it actually became an object and not just a picture and some type. The whole thing became something to have and to hold, which is missing these days with CDs generally. I suppose I picked that up from working in a packaging design studio, literally the tactile sensibility, and I tried to enhance it in the designs.

LF: Did you have trouble achieving that within a budget?

VO: I never used special papers, I always used industry standard and I never got around to die-cutting, apart from one sleeve in twenty years; but I’d go for a heavier weight board and the quality came from pushing the origination house and the printer. It must have been a pain in the arse for the sake of 5- or 10,000 sheets, this daft kid from up-north via Wandsworth, who’s he to come down on press and scrape 30,000 Pixies’ sleeves three weeks before the release. It’s not like I had the weight of a big print budget behind us and that’s why I have a lot of respect for the people we were working with. It was generally one origination house and printer, who are no longer there. But they were very accommodating especially in the earlier days, because I didn’t have the language, I was using layman terms, I don’t know much better today really. I trust my eyes but they were very accommodating.

I wanted the whole thing to feel substantial and with the logo idea, the 4AD logo, I wanted something that looked like it had been found, it’d always been around; so a sense of tradition or history with a Paul Smith feel, ’classic with a modern twist’ as he says; although I wouldn’t think about it in those terms in those days. I generally worked intuitively, and I still do, and if you are, then music is an easier industry to work in than some, because the bands don’t really want a whole lot of spiel about their music and ideas, you’re just trying to complement it, I’m just trying to get in tune with the music.

If I look at the work, I see that I do bear in mind some marketing needs. There are only a few times when I throw all the rules out and have no type on the front; I’m aware of its commercial place. I did 14 or 15 releases a year, 12-inch singles and albums, that was an average back in the early 1980s. That included projects for Xym, the Pixies, Lonely as An Eyesore, and His Name is Alive. That was before CDs and it was at a nice gentle pace because I was still learning my trade; but there was all the ephemera that went with it, the advertising and posters, and I was working by myself until Chris started in 1987.

I think I was really applied, for I enjoyed the lifestyle, I mean gigs, I really enjoyed what I was doing because I would be putting sleeves on music I would buy. The label has changed in Ivo’s absence; it didn’t really work because there was nobody with his ear to drive it, and he was a 24-hour-a-day man. It’s only now that he’s away from that situation that it is dawning on him how important that period was, because he was so intense and in the middle of it. One of the key elements to the music was mystery and one reaction was to be mystified, whereas I’ve always found the mysterious aspect as a deductive element, I saw that as a hook, the idea of mystery as giving space.

I think what the label is about, and through the packaging, is giving the customer/people credit for being more intelligent, able to find things out for yourself, and not being fed the whole story immediately. And I’ve always believed that works as a hook, because if your questions aren’t answered immediately they stay with you. I suppose I was brought up in an era of George Hardie and Bush Hollyhead, and those punning illustrations and question/answer jokes; looking at this stuff now, it seems so humorous. Ivo walked around the exhibition in Los Angeles in 1994 [This Rimy River: Vaughan Oliver and v23 graphic works, 1988-94, Pacific Design Centre], he’d just moved out there and I hadn’t seen him for six months, and he said, I didn’t realise there was so much humour in the work. I said, Ivo, where’ve you been? I had such a really good time. I was putting sleeves on my record collection and it was excellent. When the Pixies split up and CDs came in it all changed, and it lost its sparkle. CDs had been around for a while, but I remember doing our first CD and it really striking me; before that I was designing the 12-inch and doing the CD later, it wasn’t the primary format. With Frank Black’s album in 1991, that was the first time I did the CD first, so I left it late. And I’ve been depressed since then and really slow to move on. And then Ivo left and moved, at the end of 1993, to LA. I was already doing freelance work outside. I was full-time at 4AD from 1983 to 1988 and then from 1988 it became freelance; that was part of the deal. Initially I’d wanted shares in the company; I thought I was an integral part of it and deserved them but I was given freelance status instead; free use of the studio, no overheads and free to do work outside. When Ivo left I felt more free, initially, but things went downhill for 4AD. They lost all their staff, from 15 to none, and then were reborn last year. There are two new guys in charge, Chris Sharp and Ed Horrox, and us consulting and exclusively doing their sleeves. The idea is to get back to the original spirit, and at the moment the music has a bit of an electronic bent.

4AD had lost its way competing with the majors in terms of commercial success, trying to do big advertising campaigns, releasing singles from an album when they weren’t there and not really having the machinery. What 4AD was very good at was getting an amazingly high chart position on the first week of entry, so they understood the promotional aspect of it to a degree and got a very good build up, but they couldn’t maintain that position, time and time again. They employed pluggers but they couldn’t sustain it, they’d start slipping, whereas other independents, like Daniel Miller’s Mute, seemed to understand the system better and were able to maintain that success. And it just expanded in size, got too big. Now it’s all shrunk down to a manageable size again. Now Chris and Ed are out there looking for new music, they’re active and keen and I have every confidence in them.

The label and some of the sleeves were a collaboration, with Ivor, but also with photographers. When the relationship with Nigel Grierson split up it was an opportunity for me to work with more than one photographer, which I relished. I got involved with the Bournemouth College of Art, which has a very good photography course and I had a student adoption scheme and they’d come here and get advice and I’d usually end up giving them a project; one student, Jason Love got to do a Breeder’s sleeve that year, a big two-million seller. It was the only thing that went on a billboard and he was a kid just leaving college. So if someone’s good enough I had no qualms about it.