In Conversation: Heiko Hoffmann and Stefan Marx
Ahead of our Smallville Records label showcase on 5th February, we asked Heiko Hoffmann, Editor in Chief of Germany's prolific Groove Magazine to chat to Stefan Marx, the artist responsible for some of electronic music's most exciting and interesting artwork.
HH: This year marked your 10th anniversary of designing record sleeves. The first one was for Isoleé's 2005 album We Are Monster. How did you get into making record sleeves, and what do you like about designing them?
SM: It was a while before I designed my first sleeve — it was a case of lining up my teenage dream to-do-list, creating my own t-shirt design, making a skateboard graphic for a skateboard company and then came the record sleeve. Up until that point, I had designed several t-shirts with Lousy Livin and some boards. I naively thought that the music industry would stop releasing vinyl in the near future. I had two labels asking me for CD covers, but I turned them down as I wouldn’t lose my cover art virginity to a CD cover. One day I got a call from Rajko Müller (aka Isoleé), who was also living in Hamburg; we had mutual friends. He was finishing his new release on Playhouse then, and he knew my work through my Lousy Livin t-shirts. His favorite t-shirt back then was a Lousy one. He asked me if I would be up for doing his record cover. I was blown away as I was a big fan of his former release (Rest) and had seen how successful it had been.
He put me in touch with Ata (one of the owners of Playhouse), and so it all fell into place somehow. I had fun and it was a big deal for me, so we decided to carry on working on some other Isoleé releases and also a Playhouse standard sleeve. At this time Smallville was starting too, so everything came together.
I naively thought that the music industry would stop releasing vinyl in the near future.
HH: Before starting to make album sleeves you'd already made a name of yourself in the skate scene. Does it ever happen that the worlds of skateboarding and music overlap or do you usually keep them separate?
SM: In my world these two were always strongly connected. Watching skateboard videos were a main source of music inspiration back then, the music overlapping the skate parts. Nowadays I'm not as involved in skateboarding as I used to be, but I still find it very inspiring and connected to music.
HH: Ten years ago you designed a logo for Hamburg record shop Smallville. The shop developed into a party series and a record label. So far you've made more than 50 sleeves for them - none of which feature the artists' name or track title. How do you collaborate with the label?
SM: When Smallville Records started, we saw the record sleeve more as an art edition and a space for my drawings, not so much about a space to advertise the music inside with the producer's name and album title. We decided to have a black and white cover for EPs and colorful ones for long play albums. I mostly discuss the cover ideas with Julius (Steinhoff), and back then a lot with Peter (aka Lawrence) too. Sometimes I'm able to listen to the music in advance, which is always a very nice thing to do. Sometimes the musician or producer comes to my studio and we have a closer look at my work, or sometimes I just have ideas for covers. I try to look at the release as a whole to decide if the cover will be mostly white or black or in between.
We saw the record sleeve more as an art edition and a space for my drawings, not so much about a space to advertise the music inside.
HH: You not only design sleeves for Smallville and their new sub label Fuck Reality, but also Japanese Mule Electronic. The style of sleeve work is similar as - in the case of Lawrence - are the artists at times. Is this confusing?
SM: No I don’t think so. For Mule Electronic I have a slightly different approach as I discuss all the artwork with Toshiya Kawasaki (the head of Mule). Making covers for Lawrence for Smallville or Mule is one of my favorite things to do as Peter is very distinctive in an amazing way, and we have a specific process behind creating his, or better, our, sleeves. The cover for his ambient record 'A Day in the Life' was such a perfect collaboration for us. I’m always very happy to work with him as I love his music and his way of playing music to others as a DJ. We are currently working on an upcoming release on Mule, which will be fantastic.
HH: You've just started designing flyers for London club The Pickle Factory. Do you like pickles?
SM: I do like pickles a lot! My good friend and probably my favorite German graphic designer, Michael Satter is designing their flyers. I do the drawing and Michael does the typography and layout. I’m happy to work with him and Sandra - together they are Doeller Satter. http://www.doeller-satter.com/
HH: The club will soon be covered with a drawing of yours, too. Are there any other buildings already that show your work?
SM: Yes, the facade will be fantastic. I've done some site specific wall drawings here and there, but never on the outside walls. I’d love to do a huge typography drawing mural in the future, facing the houses and homes in a city.
HH: You've got a few favourite techniques that pop up again and again in your work. Can you say something about each, starting with the abstract colour paintings that can be seen for example in the sleeve design for the upcoming Moomin album?
SM: The upcoming Moomin release on Smallville shows one drawing out of a series of pastel crayon drawings. It is mostly inspired by a trip I did in 2013 to the South Pacific; I saw these patterns on a shirt an old woman was wearing during a Sunday morning church service in the very small village of Munda. It's a place in the Western province on the Solomon Islands. It was just so fantastic I redrew it in Hamburg.
HH: Then there's also your written pieces for which you use quotes from song lyrics and phrases you pick up from friends. Can you give some examples?
SM: Well, there are so many. A recent one I worked out for an exhibition I had at the Kunstverein in Offenburg, I quoted it from an old Pavement song, 'Range Life'. It goes: RUN FROM THE COPS THE PIGS THE FUZZ THE HEAT. I've loved the song since it came out back then. It captures so much. The basic thought behind drawing these lines is to have this part of the song visually in a room or a space, as a piece, as a poster maybe, to have an endless continuum of this feeling you get listening to them. I love to have these lines in my room, as a drawing. No music needs to be played to have this music in my head.
I love to have these lines in my room, as a drawing. No music needs to be played to have this music in my head.
On the other hand I love all these conversations which are going on during the night and day when my friends tell stories or just a specific thought about their lives, or other peoples' situations. Sometimes I note these down as a drawing and compile these within my zines.
HH: Then there's drawings which you collect in zines, the most recent of which - Rebel Without A Cause - features drawings you made on traffic tickets and regulatory warnings accumulated by German distiller Christoph Keller. Do you have subjects you particularly like to draw?
SM: This book is a recent release with my beloved publisher Benjamin Sommerhalder of Nieves Books (nieves.ch). Christoph Keller collected all his traffic tickets he got from around 1994 - 2012, during his work on Revolver Books, his own imprint. He got these tickets while being around in his car visiting artists or galleries, art institutes or exhibitions he was involved with Revolver. He produced beautiful books then.
Basically he paid these tickets, delivering the art scene and market with books, which never made much money in the end. So he asked me in 2008 to draw on these original tickets and then sell these to get his money back through the art market. The price was a multiple of the amount of money he had to pay. We showed all these drawings, over 100, in 2012 at the Hamburg Gallery Karin Guenther. With the money we made we printed the book. In general, its part of my practice to do artist books from time to time. Sometimes I make them on my very own copy machine, a lot of the time with Nieves Books though. You can see these at Smallville Records too. I tried to connect these worlds with my release at Smallville, The Dead Sea. It was the catalogue number 25.
HH: You also have your own clothing label called Lousy Livin. It started as a t-shirt label but seems more focused on boxer shorts these days. How did this happen?
SM: Long story short, I love to do textile patterns and through my former work at a Hamburg based clothing label I founded Lousy Livin Underwear with one of my best friends. I founded the Lousy Livin Company when I was 16. To begin with it was only about drawings and t-shirts. Today you can see the recent works at our website www.lousylivin.com.
HH: Can you name some record sleeves that impressed you when you where a teenager?
SM: The first artworks that really impressed me were the drawings Derek Riggs was doing for the early Iron Maiden records. Then the standards: I’d say Jamie Reid, Peter Saville, the old Winston Smith covers, CRASS. In general, I love art on record covers by artists like Wesley Willis, Chris Johanson, Raymond Pettibon, Seth Price, Tauba Auerbach.
Thank you, Stefan.