When I first started seeing the Pearl Jam promotions pop up all over town and online the first thing thought that sprung to mind was “Who the fuck did that artwork??” Not only was it a-typical of previous Pearl Jam work but more importantly, it was good, really good. The jaded / angry asshole in me figured it was some overvalued and expensive creative agency at work but there was a part of me that figured something else was going on here.
Time passed, anticipation for the album grew in this household and in a totally unrelated discussion with Don Pendleton he mentioned in passing that he did the Pearl Jam artwork.
I’ll leave that sit there for a moment to emphasize the shock waves that said statement caused here. Now, not only do Don and I go back professionally, but more importantly, I consider him a dear friend as well as one of the finest working artists out there. It was such a typical Don email also, last sentence type of shrug of ” oh hey, yeah, I did the PJ artwork”… LIKE FUCK. Aside from the album being another great piece of work by Pearl Jam I then interviewed Don about how this happened. It’s not every day that you get to create the artwork & identity for one of rock musics biggest acts in the world.
How did you hook up with Pearl Jam? How did that even happen?
Jeff (Ament) bought some of my paintings I think back in 2008 or 2009. At the time I didn’t know that he’d grown up as a skater…didn’t know much about him at all. But he bought some more and we exchanged several emails that time and I think we connected pretty quickly. I was going through some rough personal stuff and it was coming out in the art and he related to it. I think anytime you can connect with someone through visual art, it’s pretty rare but that’s what happened in a way. Eventually, he used one of the paintings he bought on the cover of his solo album and I did some logos and things for that.
So basically that all led up to Jeff asking me to work on a logo for their tenth album, which would eventually become all of the images for the Lightning Bolt album. We talked on the phone and had a lot of similar ideas and it just kind of built from there.
How was the process dealing with such a big band? Personal? Difficult? Easy?
Man, I cannot say enough about how natural and easy it was. Jeff knows what he likes and he ran everything by the other guys. They sent me over the lyrics to all of the songs real early on before the album had a name and the idea was just to kind of illustrate each one with a logo/graphic. But yeah…Jeff sent over sketches and had input the entire way through, as did the rest of the band. So there was no buffer, no egos, no agents or directors. Just some guys having fun. It was amazing and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be lucky enough to be in a situation like that again. Just doesn’t happen like that these days in my experience.
I thought, and still do, that the artwork that you did is different that your usual personal style. Why is that? Was it due to the cooperation or brief with PJ or did you want to try something different for them?
Actually a few different elements to the final work. I sent over a series of skateboards I’d done that were based around icons and logos. My idea was to keep it iconic with some symbols but also really heavy with archetypes…images that people have an immediate, emotional reaction to. So like hearts, moons, that kind of thing. I had done an eye with a lightning bolt in it back in 2006 for something that hadn’t been used so in sending that stuff to Jeff, he sent me some sketches too. The direction was kind of set from the first one…which was Lightning Bolt…the song before they knew for sure it would be the name of the album. So that first image (which ended up being the cover) kind of set the consistency and feel for the rest of it. And at Alien Workshop, I did a lot of work for a while with logos and icons…I love the idea of visual communication and graphic communication so that all played a part in what was the overall body of images for the album.
When did you start the process?
Early June was when it all started to come together with some ideas and sketches. I spent all my time on this project….my main goal was to make sure the band was happy. It’s their tenth studio album. To me, that’s a huge deal and I was comfortable offering suggestions and sending over ideas but ultimately none of the images would have meant anything if the guys weren’t really behind the direction and ideas.
For what would be the cover art, I painted that out by hand knowing that with something so geometric that there would be some flaws in it, especially compared to the vector/computer stuff. And I also did a cut paper version. I think there is a danger of iconic imagery becoming somewhat cold in presentation so having those more organic versions kind of anchored the rest of it maybe. We never discussed a cut paper version…I just put it together one night so that’s kind of the approach that was happening.
How much input did the band give you? Did they let you listen to the music before hand?
The band had input the whole way through Jeff. They were still recording and mastering so I’d send things to Jeff and he’d pass them by the band, come back with some suggestions or give it the go ahead and then we’d move on to the next one. I think in June I had all the lyrics to all the songs…which is interesting to read those first without the music. Kind of makes you try to interpret the words specifically instead of the overall feel. And then I got an unmastered copy of the album maybe in July and that helped a lot in trying to make sure the overall feel of the music was represented. Some of the graphics were literally straight from Jeff’s sketches, which made my job easy. But yeah, the whole way, each guy in the band seemed to have input through Jeff and it was rad that everyone seemed to be thinking in the same direction.
How thorough is your artwork going to be throughout the albums presentation? I’ve seen mural go up in LA already. Merch? Etc?
I talked about this with Jeff early on…the concept was to create a body of images that could be used consistently with all of the promotion and that kind of thing. So the elements could be almost interchangeable and still be identifiable. I mean, we weren’t talking about merch or specific promotions but I think in developing that little body of imagery, there were a lot of opportunities for promotion and that kind of thing. Same things I’ve tried to do with skateboarding over the years. It’s not a conscious branding per se…just building this group of some consistent images that people can identify from a broader perspective maybe. In not having an art director or creative director and the usual group of people, it was very much DIY….nobody was talking about demographics or merchandise or how what would play out where and I hope that comes through in some way.
I have to mention Joe Spix here, who is a designer working for Republic Records. After all the art was done, he worked with Jeff on how it would be laid out and presented…and he nailed the details perfectly. He was the other part of the project that made sure that it all came together properly…specific varnishes on the vinyl cover, die-cut to work with the inner part of the vinyl. That was the only part I wasn’t directly involved in and in seeing the final product, I couldn’t have been happier. So there was a level of care and respect…everyone just wanted the final piece to be rad and interesting.
You also painted Jeff’s base – awesome! What’s the story there?
Jeff had just asked me if he sent over a blank bass body if I would paint it. This was right before the tour…I had originally planned to just send him a painting to say thanks for asking me to be involved and to kind of commemorate the work we’d done together on the album so that’s what it became…just something I could give to him that would kind of mark this album and this tour that was a little more personal
In the end, I sent Jeff a very sincere thank you email and he sent one back. Everyone was happy and it was just nice to feel that. Specifically right now, it was important for me to realize these types of project still exist where guys in a band this important still manage things personally and without all the traditional corporate hurdles and red tape. So the ultimate reward was just in doing this stuff and going through the process of creating it and that process itself was no different than if I was doing it for a local band working out of a garage. That’s crazy to me but in an amazing way and I really, really hope that people take notice that it can still be done on that level. It may not win design awards and it may not suit everyone’s tastes but it’s proof positive that projects this size can still be done on a real basic, simple level.
To see more of Don’s work, buy his work ( FUCKING DO SO ) and generally stay on top of what one our finest living, working artists does, go to his site, here.
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