Shaun Durkan and Album Aesthetics

On July 2, 2014 by Simon Weedn


Shaun Durkan may be best known as the bass player and lead singer of the post-punk band Weekend, but many may not be aware that, in addition to his prowess as a songwriter and musician, Shaun has a rich background in art as well. A graduate of the California College of the Arts with a degree in Graphic Design, as well as training in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute, Shaun has also been establishing himself as one of the more interesting album artists in the world of independent music. His credits so far include work for Tamaryn on her album Tender New Signs, Wax Idols on their record Discipline And Desire, No Joy on their release Wait To Pleasure and an array of other work for the Mexican Summer record label. In addition to those credits, Shaun has also handled artwork design and direction for several of Weekend’s releases including their recent, critically acclaimed album Jinx. Across all of these projects, Shaun’s eye for texture, mood and attention to detail comes across fully and his attentiveness to conveying musical ideas through visual imagery makes his work especially interesting. As a side note, I’ve known Shaun for a long time; ever since we were in middle school, in fact. We spent a lot of time together hanging out, and our bands played shows together in high school. Through it all, and the years after, I’ve been privileged to watch Shaun grow and evolve as an artist, both musically and graphically. Recently, I was able to catch up with Shaun, hear all about his methods and approach to album design and artwork, and learn the back stories of some of my favorite pieces of his work.


What got you interested in doing album design and artwork?

Yeah, I started playing guitar at a really young age, and the natural thing to do after that was to start a band. When you’ve grown up looking at records, drawing logos of bands, and collecting posters and t-shirts and stuff, whether you know it or not, you’re consuming all of this graphic design made to represent the music. Growing up and being a fan of bands that were so visually striking, like, I bet anyone who’s ever listened to a Dead Kennedys record can draw that logo, creating those kind of connections between the visual identity and the music has been a part of my relationship to music since the beginning.

So when I started my own band I was really into that. I mean, you remember 24 Cuts, I’m sure. Back then I was always toying with web page design, logos, and making flyers, and so it basically all started that way, just working for myself.

Then I went to art school in college and studied photography and graphic design, and became a little bit more versed in the technical side of things, and learned a lot about art history and the history of graphic design; and now I’m here. Really, it’s just been a natural progression of working on my own records, and then working on my friends’ records.


On a professional level, who gave you your first opportunities to design for people outside of yourself?

Aside from records I’d designed for myself, the first large project I did was the second Tamaryn record, Tender New Signs. It came out on Mexican Summer in 2012. That was the first larger project for someone else’s music that I worked on.


When taking on a new design project, how collaborative is it with the artist you’re designing for?

It really depends on the musicians I’m working with. Some of them have very specific visions for how they want the art to turn out. Sometimes it ends up there, sometimes it ends up taking a detour and goes somewhere neither of us saw coming.

That first record that I did, the Tamaryn record, I collaborated a lot with her and listened to her initial ideas. It was a really fun project to work on because there was just a lot of content with it. We made individual covers for each song and we had a show in a gallery in Manhattan with the artwork up on the walls along with a listening party; they even made postcards to send out to people with all of the covers on them. It was just a really cool project and I think we all did a good job of pushing it to its extremes by really using the art to communicate the message of the record.


The Tamaryn record might be a great example for this next question. When you’re working on album artwork, do you sit down and listen to the music for ideas? How much do you allow the music to influence your visual vision for each project?

You know, there’s an initial phase where you’re trying to throw your lasso around big ideas; starting big and then slowly refining as you’re getting more and more into the process. So during those big idea brainstorming sessions, I think it’s really important to listen to the music, because that’s what you’re trying to communicate visually or elaborate on it some how. So, yeah, it’s really important to be familiar with the music.

I just started doing something recently, this is the first project I’ve done this on, where I created this set of questions to send to the band to learn about their relationship to the new music, the process of writing the record, and how it’s different than stuff they’ve done before. It’s been really cool and definitely helped me out a lot on this project. It’s something I think I’ll continue doing. I think it’s always important to take the musicians and their relationship to the music into consideration, because ultimately I think that’s what’s going to turn out the best product.


One of my favorite pieces you’ve done so far was for Wax Idols’ second record, Discipline And Desire, can you tell me about how that one came together?

Yeah, I’ve known Hether Fortune (Wax Idols’ lead singer, guitarist, and song writer) for years, she’s a really good friend of mine, and she has such a strong personality, whether online or in person, as well as a great sense of style. I was having a hard time doing that record, even though I’d already done all of her releases, and I was talking to her and finally said, “I think we should put you on the cover of this record.” It just made sense to me; this record is written by her, it’s all about her, she’s such a strong personality, why not have her on the cover? It’s a really classic thing to do. I think initially she was sort of hesitant to do it. It’s a lot of pressure to put yourself on the cover of your own record. I think it’s kind of seen as taboo or something these days. Hayden Shiebler shot a bunch of good photographs of Hether, and we just kind of looked through the photos and found one that we both fe.t set the mood for the piece. Then I experimented with a bunch of watercolors and textures, and ended up with that visual. It actually ended up being one of the easiest projects I’ve done and came together very easily. Hether and I worked very well together and so it was really fun to do.

MEX148 - Cover (500)

Another really interesting one you worked on was No Joy’s second album, Wait To Pleasure. Can you talk about that one as well?

Yeah! Well, first I asked Laura Lloyd and Jasmine White-Gluz (members of No Joy) to send me reference images of things the band was inspired with.

That’s generally how I start the process. I just try to get familiar with where the band is headed by getting visuals of things the band is inspired by, ther records that they think look great, or visual artists that they’re inspired by.

So, Laura and Jasmine sent me a big folder of really cool imagery, and a lot of it was really geometric, surreal, textural, and colorful; and Laura also said she wanted something perverted. So originally, I started scanning all of these old ‘80s sex position handbook stuff, and that actually ended up working itself into the record. I don’t know if many people know this, but if you rip open the gatefold on that record, inside there’s this big psychedelic sex image. I did that before I got the record and listened to it.

Once I heard the new album though, I felt differently. Their sound before was a sort of rock based shoegaze with really aggressive production style. But I feel like Jorge Elbrecht, the producer on Wait To Pleasure, brought all of these other elements out of the band and it ended up sounding more like a modern rock record as opposed to a shoegaze record. In my opinion, he helped expand the scope of the band. So I was looking at all of these architecture books, and I started scanning little details of architectural plans or models, and started playing around with those. So in a way, I was trying to reference the expansion of the sound of the band, both with a surreal and a mixed media feeling. It’s supposed to feel weird as fuck, psychedelic, and spatial.

IMG_8231 copy

I know that you’ve also worked on the artwork for your own band, Weekend’s, releases. Does your approach change when working on artwork for your own record?

Yeah, it becomes a lot harder, I think. For our first record, because debut records are so important, I knew that I was too close to the music to make an unbiased representation of the music. So I asked my friend, Jeff Brush, whom I’d gone to school with, and who is also one of my favorite graphic designers, to do the art for it and it turned out great. Eventually though, I wanted to take a stab at doing it on my own and it was really difficult. I read the lyrics, the album title, and the song titles, and it’s so hard to get away from how “I” feel about music; it’s hard to translate it into something that someone who doesn’t know me will be able to understand. But then it becomes the same sort of usual process: I come up with five or six, sort of, general themes, I bring them to the band, and we whittle them down into one idea. Then it, kind of, morphs and flows over the course of time, and then eventually, hopefully, it comes out cool. That’s always the gamble, because you spend up to four months making something, and then you hope it turns out how you imagined.


I know the album had a few different variations on the cover, depending on which set of records you bought and I was wondering if there was a common theme across all of them?
Yeah, all of the objects featured on the covers were things that we owned, that either we had picked up on tour or things that were personally important to us during the making of the record. So, we got these thirteen or so objects together, and originally I wanted to coat them in copper, like the way parents used to put their children’s first pair of shoes in copper or bronze. So, in a way I wanted to do that to, sort of, memorialize this process and these things that had gotten us to the stage where we recorded this record. You know, we’d spent so much time on tour together and shared so many positive and negative experiences that I wanted to put together a kind of photo album of these things that were related to the last couple of years.

We couldn’t afford copper (laughs), so we decided to paint them all black. We found this guy out on Long Island who has an auto-body shop in his garage. We brought all of these items out to him and left them there for a couple of days, and he sprayed them all black with his auto paint. Then we went and picked them up, and my friend, Eli Marias, photographed them all. The digital cover has one object, the CD has another, the vinyl has another, and the tape has another. They also all have different objects in the liner notes.


Do you find yourself becoming more of a perfectionist when it comes to designing for your own stuff?

Perfectionist isn’t the way that I’d say it. I am constantly trying to find new ways to keep things exciting; new processes and stuff. So, I’ve been working a lot lately with different ways of rendering type; using it not so much as just a block of text, but also making it a visual element as well. Whether it’s treating it like a photograph by, you know, blurring parts of the type out, burning and dodging it, or using it more illustratively. I’m just constantly trying to find new ways to move forward, keep it interesting, and do new things.


I know you were also involved in designing the artwork for your father’s band Half Church’s, recent collection, can you tell me a bit about how you approached that?

Yeah, that was kind of a difficult one as well. You know, I’d grown up listening to that record ever since I was a young kid, and I’d gotten so used to how the original pressing looked; the original has totally beautiful artwork. So, I was kind of on the fence about whether or not I wanted to change that. I think if it had just been a re-issue of that original EP I wouldn’t have changed anything, but, in a way, this one was more of an anthology of all of their recorded material that was available, and so it was a new release to me.

So I was actually in the process of moving stuff from my Mom’s house to my house in Oakland, and a lot of that stuff was things that my Dad had left me. There were tons of videotapes, cassette tapes, and other stuff. I went through them and found all of this amazing performance footage of them from the ‘80s, and I was just watching it, and it kind of just popped into my head that the single from their first EP was called “TV Screen.” so I started taking photographs of the TV screen while the video footage was playing and some if it looked really great and abstract. To me, it spoke a lot about time and looking back on things in a new light, and it made a lot of sense.


Did working on it, sort of, reconnect you or make the connection deeper to the music that your father had made with the group?

Yeah, I think it really did. I was working very closely with Monte Vallier, who was Weekend’s producer, as well as the bassist for Half Church. We were all combing through old footage. We got a friend to write some liner notes about the band, and it was really cool to go through all of that stuff. It put it in a whole new context for me. I’m super proud when I look at and listen to that stuff now.

United Ghosts @ Indie Globe

Looking ahead, do you have any upcoming design projects you’re excited about?

Yeah, I’m working on a couple projects right now actually. I’m working on an EP for a band called United Ghosts who are from LA, I’m working on an LP for a band called Azar Swan from New York, and I might be doing a new Wax Idols 7”. I’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipleline. Mike Schulman is talking about doing a 25th Anniversary book for Slumberland, so hopefully that starts going soon. I think he’s also going to re-issue the Lilys’ records too, which I might be working on; that would be awesome, because I love those records.


Where do you hope to find yourself in this area of your life in the coming years?

Um… I don’t know. I love making art for music. To me it feels really pure; it’s making art for other artists. I have no interest in making corporate design or anything like that, and I’m not really interested in building websites. For me, the expressive aspect of design is what’s important and what keeps me interested in it. I’m not like an engineer or something. A lot of my process is all about finding happy mistakes and exploiting them over and over. In a way, I don’t even feel like a designer. So, if I can avoid the trappings of corporate graphic design and make a living by continuing to do what I do now, that’s kind of the goal.

Are there any graphic designers out there currently who work on album art, who’s work you dig?

Yeah, totally! Ryan McCardle who does a lot of the Captured Tracks graphic design is really, really great. Terence Hannum, who’s in a band called Locrian, is an amazing visual artist. I mean, Vaughan Oliver, who did all of the 4AD stuff, David Carson… there are all types of people making great stuff these days.








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