Interview with Steven R. Gilmore from XLR8R Magazine #66, March/April 2003

Happy Gilmore

If (to quote Chuck D) "rap is the black man's CNN," then industrial music was the network for the generally alienated. And no one quite captured industrial culture's imagery like designer Steven R. Gilmore, who reminds us of how record sleeves truly affect the way we hear music.

Text:David J Weissberg

Standing almost six feet tall and dressed in all-black semi-utilitarian threads, Steven R. Gilmore cuts an imposing figure. His home is an orderly display of steel medical cabinets stocked with the latest Taschen books, custom designed industrial furniture and his own large, film-noir-inspired realist paintings, which adorn his walls. But the whole foreboding ambience is quickly deflated by the presence of a small, all-white longhaired poodle in flagrante delicto with a toy squirrel.

"Snowie! Get off of that! Sorry, he only does that when guests are here," Gilmore laughs. The scene is an apt metaphor for both Gilmore and his work as a whole: dark, orderly, aesthetically well-designed and derailed by subtle hints of sexuality and humor. And nowhere is that more evident than in his pioneering design work within the genre of industrial music.

By the early-'80s, as punk rock's safety pins started losing their sharpness, industrial music came along and retrofitted the previous movement's nihilism into apocalypse culture. And while '80s design pioneer Neville Brody provided industrial's first wave with nicer if somewhat more consistent sleeves (see Fetish Records, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, 23 Skidoo), nothing visually defined the genre like Gilmore's brief but impacting work during its second phase with Vancouver, Canada's Nettwerk Records in the mid-to-late-'80s. His instinctual rendering of dark lyrical content into arresting symbolic imagery was only matched by his attention to a unique design aesthetic. While macabre styling was nothing new (especially for heavy metal bands), Gilmore's work rescued it from the realms of Conan the Barbarian-style theatrics and just plain we-like-death-so-here's-some-line-art-of-a-skull heavy-handedness. Like industrial music itself, Gilmore's visual style shaped plenty of today's popular culture and electronic music. Both fashion designers like Alexander McQueen and fashion plates like Marilyn Manson have taken visual cues from his work. And musicians as diverse as Matmos, Adrian Sherwood, Autechre, Orbital, The Sofa Surfers, Andrew Weatheral and Aphex Twin (to name but a fraction) all lay claims to its musical influence.

Graphic designers in particular hold Gilmore's oeuvre in high regard. While conservative design annuals skipped over him in the past, and his name today might not always ring a bell, you only need mention any of his Nettwerk sleeves to people in the trade to hear the inevitable "Oh, him! I love his work. He's what made me want to get into design." You can partly chalk up the quality of Gilmore's work to the fact that-like that of contemporaries like Brody, Vaughn Oliver and Peter Saville-all of it was painstakingly handmade. Instead of buying flashy new fonts from design houses like T 26 or Emigre, Gilmore custom-made typefaces for specific albums via pen and photo-typesetting. He created his dense, multi-layered imagery-now standard in Photoshop-with the virtually extinct process of overlays. Minus the concept and print time, these intensive pre-Mac methods could sometimes take weeks, if not months. And his visual language-much to the chagrin of goth and nu-metal sleeve designers-has rarely been matched since.

But don't assume that he's been buried along with his photomechanical transfer overlays and non-repro blue pencils. Gilmore is young, alive and well, and has relocated from Vancouver to the Brooklyn of the Left Coast, the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. And while he now uses a Mac and is somewhat low key, he still designs-recent work has included sleeves for various artists (including ex-Skinny Puppy singer Ogre) and packaging for The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers soundtrack. Represented by the Merry Karnowsky gallery (home to shows by Shepard Fairey, Camille Rose Garcia and Ron English), Gilmore is a lifelong painter and self-taught artist who depicts with a photo realism that would have Chuck Close double-checking his contacts.

Rarely interviewed, Gilmore chatted with XLR8R at his house/studio about design, Nettwerk and music in general.

XLR8R: So you were originally a DJ as well as designer?

Steven R. Gilmore: Yes, for a nightclub in Vancouver called Love Affair in the late '70s and early '80s. It was originally a disco until we had a sit-in one day because we refused to listen to disco any longer. I was spinning new-wave, punk, The Cramps, Depeche Mode, OMD, Joy Division. It wasn't a DJ like today-I didn't have to mix beats or anything, one song just kind of ran into another. It was through there that I met cEvin Key [of Skinny Puppy]. I remember when Kevin was working at Safeway and he would always give me a good deal when I came to the till, he'd kinda throw a steak in there. That's when he was in a band called Images In Vogue, a new romantic band. And I wound up doing all their sleeves. While I was working at the club DJing, they wanted one of their live acts, Moev, to be spun at the club as well. And that's how I initially met Terry McBride, who owned Nettwerk-it wasn't Nettwerk Records then-who was managing them, and they had this one release that they really wanted to push. I was already quite established in the music industry of Vancouver before I started working with Nettwerk, though. I had done several posters for [both local and international] bands that were performing in town as well as doing sleeves for local acts.

XLR8R: Did you have a design background?

SRG: I was totally self-taught. I've always drawn since I was a kid. However, my first commercial job was doing a sign for a gay club. I was about 17 at the time. But when I got into graphic design I knew nothing about it. I did this sign, then one thing led to another. I never thought I'd become a graphic designer. I always thought I would become an artist. I don't know what happened, but I used to read The Face, in particular the early ones Neville Brody had done. This was really intriguing to me. Then I started reading interviews with him, and I thought, "I can somehow makes this a part of me, and not just work."

I originally did everything with Letraset, including some of the early Nettwerk stuff. It was all Letraset, including all the legal lines. The thing was, I was getting paid maybe $200 for a sleeve and it would cost about 200 bucks to typeset it, so I wouldn't make any money. So the only way I could make money on a sleeve was by doing it all with Letraset. I had a system all worked out. If I was using nine-point type, I counted every letter and, using non-repro pencil, put lines down and measured. It was really painstaking when I think about it.

XLR8R: Was industrial music something you were listening to at that time?

SRG: I was mostly listening to No-Wave stuff from New York. Bush Tetras, Lydia Lunch, James White and the Blacks, the Contortions and some industrial stuff like Throbbing Gristle, Test Department and Cabaret Voltaire.

XLR8R: Did you gravitate towards darker imagery because of your personal interests or because that's what fit the bill with Nettwerk and the artists that were on it?

SRG: Mostly personal interests. At the time I thought my life was big dark cloud [laughs]. It's something that I could put my headspace into quite easily. So I suppose it's part of my personality, even though I don't listen to that kind of music anymore. I'd say of all the bands I did sleeves for, the only one I actually enjoyed was Skinny Puppy-them and Severed Heads.

XLR8R: Who were your influences around that time?

SRG: Neville Brody, bar none. Absolutely. What Neville Brody's work for Fetish Records did for me was show me that graphic design can be art. It can be personal. It doesn't have to be run-of-the-mill, and even though I look at the sleeves now and they look conservative, at the time they weren't conservative. You can go against the rules and you can make type smaller, you can turn it sideways-whatever you felt like doing you could do it.

Peter Saville as well for the kind of simpler things he was doing with Factory records. And I would say that 23 Envelope was another influence with the work that Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Grierson were doing for 4AD. What all these designers had in common was that they were establishing a look for their respective labels, which is something that I wanted to emulate.

XLR8R: What about non-design influences?

SRG: Orson Wells, Twilight Zone, David Lynch, Mark Tansey. But especially Orson Wells-I've seen Touch of Evil easily 100 times.

XLR8R: What was the typical brief (graphic assignment) like?

SRG: There were never any briefs. Nettwerk would let me do anything I wanted to. They never told me what they did or didn't prefer. Whatever I fancied doing, I just did it. Of course, there were some objections when [the record] came out, but by that time it was to late. Especially the way it was then when you were looking at [proofs] at the time, with lots of layers. You're not seeing it the same way you would on a computer, so you can't tell what its going to look like when it's finished, other than one photograph at the bottom layer. But as far as what the colors are going to be [on any given layout], you don't have a clue. No one looked at the brief. I would finish the sleeve, then take it to the print house. I don't think anyone ever did any proofreading!

XLR8R: You mean even Skinny Puppy wouldn't come by with a box of skulls or anything to say this is what we're interested in this week?

SRG: Well, with [Nivek] Ogre we'd usually always discuss stuff, then he'd let me interpret his ideas. But with most of the other releases on Nettwerk, there was no discussion-I just did the sleeve in a way that might reflect the music that you were getting inside. Whereas with Skinny Puppy, whether it was testing on animals or whatever the case may be, then those were the issues or concepts that the sleeve reflected.

XLR8R: I noticed on some sleeves-for example MC 900 Ft Jesus's "Straight to Heaven"-there's a design assistance credit to [San Francisco designer] Rex Ray. Was that computer assistance?

SRG: Yeah, I used to fly down to San Francisco to get him to do stuff on his computer for me. That was amazing. He had one of those classic Macs, and all he did with it was typesetting. I flew down three times, not just to do typesetting but also to learn about the computer. Neville Brody had told me, "You gotta get a Macintosh, it's amazing." At the time all the other designers were saying "No way. Computers can't do this or that." But once I started working with Rex, I found that there was a lot you could do with it, at least typesetting-wise. I no longer would have gotten typesetting done through [typsetter] Greg Sykes, who I'd usually have do PMTs [photo-mechanical transfers] of the type to get it the size I wanted. It was still a big deal to output it to the size you want so that all you have to do is lay it on, minus picking the colors. You would save hundreds of dollars on PMTs alone.

XLR8R: Where do you pull a lot of your images from?

SRG: I rip-off images a lot from wherever I can, especially television. I get a lot off stuff off TV. However, I did do a lot of photography myself as well.

XLR8R: Was there any controversy surrounding your imagery?

SRG: No, not really. These aren't particularly popular albums, they never were in the top 40. But I did this sleeve [holds up Skinny Puppy's Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse, whose cover has a murky image of woman's torso]. This one was on Tipper Gore's list, the PMRC [Parent's Music Resource Center, Gore's mid-'80s watchdog organization against excessive sex, violence and drug imagery in pop music].

XLR8R: Did it get a sticker?

SRG: No, because this was before it. But this is one that was held up as an example of why there should be [laughs].

XLR8R: Was there a social or political agenda to the art?

SRG: Only maybe a little bit on the sexual side. I was going a bit against the grain. If you look at the cover of Mind, it was taken off a porno I was watching in a hotel in New York. Well, I wasn't watching. It just happened to come on...

XLR8R: Sure, sureS

SRG: No, no really! I wasn't really watching it, because it was a really bad film. I didn't watch it for more than a few minutes. It was just a girl lying on the floor and probably was from the '70s. The sexual repression thing has always irked me. What are you, kidding? The thing that feels the best in life is the thing people keep trying to repress for some reason, but they glorify violence at the same time. I would say that socially, anyway, my sleeves back then-as they do now-have a slight commentary on violence or a slight commentary on sexuality.

XLR8R: How necessary is sleeve design?

SRG: At the time I thought that it was important. I don't think it's as important now. At the time, a release [with] a nice design reflected something about the music. But today I don't know if I believe that. I think that you can have a really crappy sleeve and it doesn't matter. And, if we're talking about majors here, they're going to push the album whether it's got a good sleeve or a shitty sleeve. For the most part, I don't they think really care what the sleeve looks like as long its works in whatever capacity they want it to work in. As long as the band's name is readable, then that's all that matters. Back then, there were a number of people [music collectors], and maybe I'm being totally subjective here, but you would collect stuff just for the sleeves, because you thought the sleeves were exciting. I don't know if that happens so much anymore.

XLR8R: But what about independent releases, is it important for them?

SRG: I think it's really important for independent releases to have nice sleeves. It gets them noticed more, unless the music is so outstanding that it stands by itself-then it wouldn't matter what the sleeve looks like. But for the most part, the music isn't always outstanding. It may be good, but it isn't always outstanding. I think that good design does help get a label noticed or a record noticed, but mainly on the independent side, not the major side.

XLR8R: Do you find it ironic that 15 years on, industrial music/culture has found its way into the mainstream? For example, Marilyn Manson sandwiched comfortably between Britney and Blink 182 on heavy rotation on MTV?

SRG: Well, what troubles me is that you never want to give up your sources. You know, I look at [Nine Inch Nails'] Trent Reznor, he totally [appropriated ideas from] Ogre, in my opinion. But he's never mentioned Skinny Puppy in his interviews as an influence. Nine Inch Nails did become mainstream-but when that happened, Skinny Puppy went the opposite direction. They could've easily been as big as Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson, in my opinion.

XLR8R: It's hard to tell these days what is truly alternative?

SRG: I tell you who I think is truly alternative is someone like Amon Tobin. He's brilliant in my opinion. And it's not much different from what I do with my art. [Tobin] incorporates samples into his compositions in ways that weren't originally intended for them to be used. It's what a lot of DJs [and musicians] do, and I think it's outstanding. A lot of people say, "Well, [DJs who sample] aren't real musicians," but who gives fuck? It sounds incredible. I don't care where you got that sound from. If you ripped it off, good! It doesn't mean you have to try and reproduce [from the original source].

XLR8R: Have you gotten a lot of contact today, either from fans or from potential jobs because of your work with Nettwerk?

SRG: Ever since I put the website up, yeah, I get people saying that I was a big influence on them. But I don't get any work from what I did with Nettwerk, and I don't really put it in my book, either. To me, it's part of my past. What I find ironic about this is that it's never going to go away. I think some people see it as more important than I ever did. I never thought of myself as being influential.

For more info on Gilmore's work, both old and new, check


(Ex-Skinny Puppy frontman) ON STEVEN GILMORE
"Steven has been a part of my creative life since it's conception. When we first met I found myself cowering a bit in the perceived darkness and intensity that surrounded him. His work reflects this intensity, and his neurotic need to dig deeper into the dark places that haunt him pushes the envelope even further. This is tempered with an incredible sense of humor and insight from listening to the artist and then taking the concept well beyond expectation to a more refined pictorial/graphic statement. I just share my ideas and get out of the way!

I have seen Steven deal with personal loss that would turn me bitterly cold, and [watched him] come out of the abyss with a renewed kindness and compassion without losing an ounce of edge. Lastly, we grew up in the same city, approximately two miles from each other, without ever meeting. So we share the same cultural malaise." ((smile))