Vaughan Oliver figures each year of his professional life is worth two minutes. At least that’s how he’s prepared for his talk tonight, as part of “The Record” exhibit at the ICA.
“I’m trying to cram 30 years into 60 minutes,” says Oliver. Many will already be familiar with Oliver’s work as the designer of every commercial work the Pixies ever released. The British artist speaks of Boston’s biggest alt-rock export without invitation.
“For somebody like the Pixies, it wasn’t just what the music was about,” he says. “It was also, ‘What films are you into? What kind of paintings do you like? What moves you, outside of the music?’”
He says of his work with the Pixies, that he was “trying to evoke a sense of their dark and surreal sense of humor.” This includes characters ranging from a bald man whose back is covered with hair to a topless flamenco dancer to a monkey gone to heaven.
“What’s at the heart of a lot of my designs is ambiguity and mystery,” says Oliver.
The same goes for Oliver’s work for other artists on 4AD, the label where he spent most of his career. His work has also included sleeves for TV on the Radio, Bush and the Breeders. The common thread is an abstract feeling that complements the music within. He says when he designs a cover he becomes “totally immersed” in the music.
“In our discipline, it’s pretty easy to make a nice or exciting or provocative record sleeve,” he says. “But if it has no connection with the music, it’s worthless.”
Vaughan on “Come On Pilgrim”: Photographer Simon Larbalestier was responsible for all the Pixies imagery, and I almost think of him as a fifth Pixie, if you like. His own personal aesthetic seemed to fit in with what they were doing. Sometimes there was an image of Simon’s that was up on a shelf, like with the dog image for the “Here Comes Your Man” single that I remembered from Simon’s library. But generally, with the Pixies, we worked from a blank canvas. The first one, the hairy man, was part of his MA graduation show. And I had been briefed on David Lynch’s movies, and Charles liked the idea of male nudity. [The Charles he’s speaking of here is Pixies singer Charles Thompson, who is also known as Black Francis and Frank Black]. So walking around Simon’s show, and I had met him two years previously and liked his work, but I always kind of wait for the right project to come along. You see a lot of photographers’ work that’s great, but you’ve got to fit it with the right piece of music and have things click. So the hairy man, you see that he was going bald, but the rest of his body was covered in hair, and the way that Simon had lit this, it obviously accentuated the hair, and it seemed for me that there’s an animalistic nature to the Pixies’ music and that guy fit it.
Vaughan on “Surfer Rosa”: I would brief Simon about the music and talk about the lyrics, but I generally tend to step back. I think you get more out of a photographer if you do that. [As for the stuff in the background of “Surfer Rosa”] that was [Cocteau Twins’] Robin Guthrie’s guitar. We were just looking for props. The model was a friend of a friend. I asked a girlfriend if she knew anyone could do a typical Spanish dance, which is all about anger and sex and there’s a lot of pride in there and tradition. I quite liked the idea of treating it in a more decadent fashion, and asking her to do it topless, so that’s kind of subverting the tradition, really.
For ‘The Record’
Make sure to visit the ICA’s new exhibit, “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.” Some highlights:
* David Byrne’s “More Songs About Buildings and Food”: The cover of the Talking Heads’ 1978 album may just look like a cool, pixelated experiment. But it’s really more than 500 Polaroids that make up this 7 ½-foot composite of the band.
* David McConnell’s “Phonosymphonic Sun”: Six reassembled old record players lined in a row perform a composition that hits your ears six different ways.
* Satch Hoyt’s “Celestial Vessel”: Hoyt put more than 200 7-inch records together for this beautiful boat that he says represents how music has taken people “from slave ships to space ships.”
See Vaughan Oliver Wednesday, April 26th at 6:30 p.m. at the Institute of Contemporary Art (100 Northern Ave., Boston). For more info, call 617-478-3100 or visit www.icaboston.org.