Alley Cat Rally mini projects

The release of my book is creeping closer! It’s less than a month before Alley Cat Rally is published in the UK, and over the past few weeks I have been nervously trying to think of things I can do to promote the book myself.

I’ve started by making a mini-site that gives a good overview of the book, the characters, and the places you can preorder it, alongside some other fun graphics and odds-and-ends.

That’s table stakes though, so I’ve done a couple more interesting projects that I’ve also made videos about.

The first mini-project is the ballad of the little washer. I’ve had this on my shelves for years, but a desire to open it up and add some ballast to it became a mission to connect it to the internet, programming it so it will spin whenever anyone visits the short link I set up to preorder the book:

The second project is a bit less technical, but only slightly: I made a plush version of Asta, the star of the book. She wears a great pair of goggles in Alley Cat Rally, so I had to figure out how to make them, and ended up rigging up my own vacuum-forming setup, on a home kitchen scale:

I am pleased with both of these projects, and also with the videos themselves! I think I am slowly getting more natural at using my voice, which I’m hoping will come in handy as I try to join my publisher in promoting the book!

Two Loops

A slightly different project for Hospital Records has gone live! The label needed some artwork for two looping videos to use for 24/7 live streams, so they brought the project to me. I was gifted with a tonne of creative freedom for the videos, so I put a bit of effort into them both. Hospital then brought in motion graphics maestro Adobe Toby to bring the two projects to life.

Hospitality Bangers Cityscape

Hospital Liquid Machinery

The first one is Drum & Bass Non-Stop Bangers, a 24/7 stream of the more club-oriented music from the Hospital catalogue. I drew up a huge urban cityscape for this project featuring notable venues from Hospitality’s rich history – from the early days of Herbal and Heaven, right up to the tents of Hospitality In The Park, as well as a few other easter eggs.

The second is Drum & Bass Non-Stop Liquid, which digs into the label’s more musical side. This artwork was well into my wheelhouse – pictures of all kinds of ridiculous machines – medical, musical, and pointlessly domestic, and all strung together in a completely nonsensical way. Classic Hospital, and fits the mono illustration style I’ve been employing on several label-focussed projects over the past couple of years.

The live streams have been a success for Hospital so far, which is particularly good to know in an era when the live club event business has been decimated by our pandemic. I’m glad I put the time in, and glad that Toby did too, as the videos feel so alive now!

I made a book!

First photo of Alley Cat Rally

I can’t wait to write more about this in the coming months, but I’m really excited to announce that I made a real, honest-to-goodness book, and it is being published internationally this spring!

‘Alley Cat Rally’ is a children’s picture book about a cat who makes a racing car out of her washing machine, and makes some friends in the process. It’s being published by Flying Eye books, and is available to pre-order now: Preorder link for the UK (releases April 2021), Preorder link for USA (releases July 2021).

If anyone has been dedicated enough to follow the depths of my work, you may have seen some earlier iterations of this in their various forms, and that might give an idea of how long this has been in the process (many years!). I’m really looking forward to receiving my own finished copies of this, and for seeing it on sale in real shops too!

Super Victory

I had a small victory this summer in the form of finally getting Hospital Records’ Spotify playlists rebranded. I’m an old man and still haven’t bought into the value of streaming services, so I’ve never had to personally interface with these playlists, but they have been a bit of a bugbear of mine for a while.

They seemed to crop up on my jobs radar for Hospital every eighteen months or so for the past few years – I would be asked to redesign them, I would mock something up, then it would fizzle out and they’d either make something else in-house or just leave whatever was there. Finally word came from higher-up though, and I was given free reign to redo them more thoughtfully.

Despite Akzidenz Grotesk always being a crucial part of Hospital’s identity, we had never given much time to the Super weight of the font, until now. I pulled through some of the elements from my illustrated NHS300 cover into these playlists too.

A series of six thematic cover designs for Hospital Records' Spotify playlists

The x-ray for the house party particularly tickles me – it might just seem like a bit of a medical non-sequitur, but really it makes me think of my big brother and his university days: I don’t think it was strictly a house party, but there was definitely a party he went to where he ended up breaking a bone. It just feels like the sort of inevitability of something that would happen at a wild house party!

I’m really happy to have finally tidied these up and not had them slip down the back of the sofa *again*! I love being able to create little series like this too!

Epitaph for a record label

NHS381 marks a sad moment in my music industry design career. I’m no stranger to design and identity projects for labels that have had short runs and naturally fizzled out, but Med School is the first one to very firmly close its proverbial doors after more than a decade.

It came as a bit of a shock to me – and everyone, including the decision-makers, I think, to wind down the label at just shy of 100 releases. It was a hell of a thirteen-year run, but the decision was made, and Hospital decided the best way to acknowledge the label and its exploits should be in the form of a ‘Graduation’ LP on the big label.

The artwork project proved to be a bit of a battle, but in the end my awkward illustration skillz saved the day, and we ended up with something we all liked. Below is an alternative cut in classic Med School scrubs-green, which didn’t quite win the office popular vote over the full-colour version, but it’s the one I prefer anyway.

Alternative, classic-green Med School Graduation record cover

Beside the Graduation LP, though, it’s worth a moment to look back at the Med School design history, if a little critically. Continue reading “Epitaph for a record label”

Wave and spin

Behold my latest record cover! Long-time collaborator Logistics has a habit of kindling inspiration in me, usually by bringing his music with some kind of twentieth-century art or design reference point that is totally in my wheelhouse.

Logistics - Waveforms EP cover

For this EP, Logistics gave me some images of library music sleeves, so I took these reference points and set about creating a unique piece of artwork that (hopefully) feels like it could be part of the same niche. I came up with a scheme to do a spin painting for the artwork. The technique is wildly unpredictable, and (as is the way in the topsy-turvy world of independent music) the constraints didn’t afford the luxury of creating an entire spin-painting turntable, but I managed to cobble together a setup using my power drill, some scraps of wood, and my communal back-garden on a sunny day.

The trial-and-error began. I discovered that acrylic paint was too thick and ink was too thin, but paint from a spray-can was just about the right consistency to drift with the centrifugal forces, but still stay opaque. A few attempts later I was starting to get results I was happy with.

A little colour-shifting later, the results pleased the label and Logistics himself, so it was on to the packaging details. The cover design was divided into thirds, so I found a slightly abstract way to divide the centre labels into thirds too.

Waveforms EP centre label

Because this is a cover for Hospital’s most-prolific musician and the reference point for the artwork was library music, I also went to the effort of presenting the inner sleeve as a library of Logistics’ music in itself. I combed through the entire back catalogue, fought it into a sensible (again thirds-based) layout, and after a bit of to-and-fro over what should and shouldn’t be included where, we have another satisfying detail for the project!

The Logistics Music Library, 2019

The record is available on Hospital Records now.

What’s In The Box?

2019 has been a productive year so far, and has featured a few more ambitious music-packaging projects than I usually get the pleasure of contributing toward. The project I’ve been most excited by this year has finally become real:

Jet Star meets Hospital stopmotion

Jet Star Meets Hospital is a collaboration album between Drum & Bass record-label-and-good-friends Hospital Records, and legendary reggae record label Jet Star Music. The album has been a long time coming. We have all worked on it for multiple years, through various moments of flipflopping between looking like it’s definitely going to happen and looking like it’s never going to see the light of day, but it’s finally here!

JSMH Dinked Centre Labels

The physical product is special. It’s eight 7″ 45RPM records, each of which have been ‘dinked’ (which means they have the huge centre holes, like classic reggae 7″s have). It’s a full version of the album on CD in a digipak packaging. It’s a pair of exclusive 7″ Hospital logo slipmats in a unique ‘Surgical Slippers’ packaging. And because centre holes are big and label copy is long for collaboration records, it’s also a minuiature poster/flyer of the artwork and credits too. And all of this is wrapped up in a miniature record box adorned with the artwork, and ready to fill with the rest of your 45RPM record collection.

Inside the JSMH box

It’s not often I get to design a package with so many individual parts, but doing all the pieces proved to be the easy bit. As is often the case in my world, the much harder part is the creative idea. We didn’t want to go too dumb with the reggae clichés, so we agreed on a cover design approach featuring all the names of the artists involved in the album. I found a nice old record sleeve from the seventies I liked as a starting point, but quickly found that fitting so many names around a central title using pre-designed type an unnecessarily difficult task, so quickly changed my approach to doing it all by hand.

JSMH Cover Design Process

This idea was sound, but direction came from Hospital to make the title more pronounced and to use this as an excuse to emphasise the 7″ format of the project, so we did that. Everyone on the Hospital side was happy, but when Jet Star saw it, they were concerned that it looked too much like one of their competitors’ albums, so back to the drawing board I went. The solution I ended up finding was to not throw all my nice hand-drawn type out completely, but to change its layout, wrapping it around the centre-label design in the middle. The idea got signed off, and after a few more foolish changes, we were approved enough for me to get working on everything else.

JSMH Box

Many elements of the package (the centre labels in particular) were inspired by some of Jet Star’s designs from the seventies. Using these and a little of my own inventiveness, the package came together like a dream. I was very excited to assemble my own box on a visit to Hospital’s offices earlier this month, and I’m very proud of the work!

Fate Has Been Tempted

Considering my last post here involved inventing runner-up positions for imaginary awards, fate has been tempted and now one of my projects has been nominated for an honest-to-goodness real award: the packaging I designed for the 2019 edition of Hospital Records’ Sick Music album series is a nominee for Best Creative Packaging at the Association of Independent Music (AIM) awards. If you scroll far enough, you can see that the nomination really has happened in this BBC News article!

As Hospital’s label manager Romy put it, it’s kind of amazing for us to be competing against Keith Richards.

The record came in a pretty unique hardbacked sleeve, which was packed in a further box containing stickers, T-shirt and extra versions of the album on CD and USB. My favourite part of the packaging, though, was the set of inner sleeves, featuring my petri dish artwork:

Sick Music 2019 Disc 1

Sick Music 2019 Disc 2

Sick Music 2019 Disc 3

Sick Music 2019 Disc 4

Welp, I’m officially a runner-up! We’ll find out if it’s anything more than that in September.

Cover for me

Designing record covers is ostensibly my job! Here are a couple of artworks I made this spring that I am particularly happy with:

Hospitality On The Beach 2019 Record Cover

This year’s kind-of-annual Hospitality mix album was timed to tie in with the label’s Hospitality On The Beach party. Our first idea turned into an awkward problem involving a girl with a tattoo, so I decided to follow the form of the last couple of Hospitality albums, but this time make it out of sandcastles. Well, I really raided my baking cupboard and made it out of brown sugar, but the effect was perfect. I sculpted moulds out of foamboard and filler, and the cover basically did itself. I am pleased with it!

Etched vinyl disc for Urbandawn's 'Come Together' record

Urbandawn did a cheeky cover-version of The Beatles’ Come Together, and it blew up the club scene so much that Hospital felt obliged to release it. The cover design job fell in my lap, but having never been a fan of The Beatles, I found the job hard. It was as difficult as I found the task of designing beer labels as a non-drinker: these are worlds with very deep, revered cultures with which I have no relationship.

Given that, I must confess I don’t feel great about the actual cover I made. It’s a neo-Junglist agglomeration of Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, so as a total outsider to Beatles Culture, I worry it seems like an awkward mashup of two things that a more learned person would never want together. But hey, it pleased the label and the artist, and has been well-received by its target market too, so maybe it’s a case of two great tastes that taste great together after all.

What I do feel great about, however, is what’s inside the sleeve! Hospital have been making an effort to make their vinyl more special as the market has continued its shift from DJs to collectors. Because this was a total one-off track, we got to do something for this I’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is to etch some artwork into the reverse of the record, as in most other contexts, the other side would’ve had another track.

Even better still, the design we had etched into the reverse was a revival of an illustration I did several years back. The illustration never ended up getting manufactured as the T-shirt I had intended it to be, and I was always a bit sad about its rejection as I was a big fan of the design. It suited this project perfectly, so it was an extra sweet reward to bring it back in such a unique context.

Etherwood's Lost In The Right Direction packaging

Etherwood has been living/touring in a campervan while writing music for his latest EP, ‘Lost In The Right Direction’. We wanted a way of snapshotting his life on the road, as it seemed like such a crucial part of the experience, but we only had a handful of in-the-moment smartphone photos to communicate that. We ended up using projector slides to contextualise these images on the cover, but my favourite part of this package is the inner sleeve.

Given the retro-photography concept of the cover, I extended the metaphor with the packaging of the inner sleeve. I wanted to evoke my all-too-brief darkroom days, and based on a couple of lovely comments left on my Instagram, it seems like it evoked it for other people too!

Levela - Cerebral EP

I still work with Critical, but my role with them has been a bit more technical lately, as they’ve been getting some excellent artwork done by some of tomorrow’s graphic artists. It was a nice treat to do a whole cover for them again, and this was a Critical classic – mostly black, but a shot of colours and oh-so-minimal. I’m pleased with how this one came out!

Freezing in a Heatwave

A new record cover I created is released today! It’s the debut single for a new signing to Med School Music – a chap called Lakeway. Aside from the title, I was kind of given carte blanche with the direction for this project, so I ended up creating some artwork intended to feel ‘connected’ like nerves, which I then physically froze.

I made it by hammering some carefully-placed nails into a surface I painted, then winding cotton thread between the nails (it’s all one continuous piece again!) to form the letters. I was happy with the design at that point, but it needed to represent the frozen part of the title too, so (obviously?) I put the whole thing in my kitchen’s freezer. I sprayed it with water at intervals until the ice had built up enough around the cotton threads for the lettering to solidify satisfactorially.

It hung out with the frozen peas for a couple of days while we got final approval, then for a little something extra, I timelapsed the ice melting away from it again and reversed the result, so it was becoming frozen again. Harry at Hospital Records then swept in and edited the timelapse into some nice motion graphics to accompany the track uploads to YouTube.

It’s nice to have a bit of ice-cold artwork for this long hot summer we’ve been having in Britain!

 
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