AUBREY POWELL AND PSYCHEDELIA, AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION
Aubrey Powell, Hipgnosis’ art design club founder and creator of breathtaking album covers, turns to be the spokesperson of our DRY #15 Psychedelia issue. In this interview, originally featured on our brand-new editorial extension My Favorite Things, now on newsstands, Beatrice Finauro questions him about the true meaning of psychedelia. The graphic design master leads us to explore the beauty and timeless relevance of not to create the product we guess people want, but to reveal the eerie mystery behind it. Conversing with Powell, a pivotal element revolving around psychedelic realm emerges: the lateral thinking. What’s it? Many are the significances given by creatives to this concept, but what actually matters is its inextricable, enigmatic nature (precisely as Powell’s visual imaginary of the music world). The term is a contradiction in itself, embodying the thinking and the non-thinking. If you look at a picture or listen to a song, to think laterally means seeing what’s not shown, hearing what’s not told. It’s the deep, colorfully intense world hidden behind the ‘obvious’. Lateral thinking is the alternative state of mind towards what’s immediately perceivable, is the ordinary life’s magic… the very emblem of psychedelia.
Here this exciting conversation between Aubrey and Beatrice, and enjoy the unpublished videochat of it.
The Pandemic had also some positive aspects and one of those it’s the fact that we managed to have an interview with Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, the British graphic designer who is known better for co-founding the graphic design company Hipgnosis with Storm Thorgerson in 1967.
Hi Aubrey, I am very honoured to talk with you, because it is a great pleasure to host such an influental designer and creative mind. So, how are you during this pandemic?
I’m in my house in the countryside in Oxfordshire. It’s a beautiful weather, we have a beautiful garden and I’m cycling. So, it’s fine.
I’m a big fan of your work, because the Hipgnosis approach to the creative process keeps showing what lateral thinking exactly is. How did you make it and when exactly did you realize you had a vision and that vision could have worked?
Storm Thorgerson and myself started Hipgnosis in about 1967. At that time there was a cultural revolution taking place – in everything – music, art, painting and we just happened to be part of that wave. The first thing that really influenced me was Peter Blake, who designed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album cover for the Beatles, which is a sculpture created in a studio; when I saw that I thought, that’s a way to do record covers that are different. They are not just pictures of the band. Storm and I, we always thought about doing something different that was out of the box. I didn’t want to copy anything that anybody else had done that was boring or uninteresting. We started with Pink Floyd and they were part of that cultural revolution, particularly in the psychedelic world, creating space rock records, as it was called then, and we managed to create images that appealed to them, but were also unlike anything else that had been done before. We developed a position, with record companies, with management, with all the bands we worked for that either they did it our way or no way. We were fortunate. It was the right time in the right place.
Right time – right place. It’s not just like a matter of luck or being in the right place?
I think one of the first things that we adopted, was to do things that we wanted to do; images we wanted to design and photograph that were not necessarily related to the music or the lyrics, or the name of the band, or the title of the album. It’s not our responsibility to make the music. It is our responsibility to create something eye-catching. We had no interest in the commercial demands at all, we simply wanted to create a piece of work that was stimulating and cerebrally interesting.
The tight relationships that you used to have with the bands. You used to go out with them, you used to sometimes share a flat with them. Was this important because when you understand their point of view and their influences that creates the kind of process that make big things happen.
That’s right, and also it’s a shared interest. When you go out to watch the same films, you know, we were very into black and white cinéma, vérité films, the 1960’s French film noir by Godard or Buñuel, art films like Un Chien Andalou, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, then we would all go together. We all read the same kind of books too from Kerouac to Marvel Comics. We would go to avant-garde theatre, Antonin Artaud or Brecht. The same kind of music, jazz, Albert Ayler, Thelonious Monk, people like that. The kind of avant-garde way of looking at things. Because we were all connected, in the same sphere, when you thought about an idea you were already on the same wave length.
I went along to present an idea for a Pink Floyd album cover, say a picture of a cow, they understood the abstractness of it, they realised the enigma of it, they weren’t interested to have something that was obvious. So, when you presented something with no attachment to anything, it was what we called “a non-cover”. In other words, it was very much like the Dada movement. Something that did not relate to anything other than the mundane, the ordinary. It’s like the surrealist movement of the 1920’s – 1940’s; they had a way of thinking, and we did that practise in Hipgnosis with the people we worked with.
You were doing something completely different. Because in the 60’s in America were the years when Andy Warhol was doing his art, taking the advertising language to the extreme, multiplying the images of divas and stars and making visibility and fame highly desirable values. You decided to go in the opposite direction, towards subtle, strange imagery, towards Buñuel’s Surrealism or Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon; avant-garde pictures like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, remind me of that style for example. You removed the band from their own covers, and you succeeded in doing that.
It’s interesting, because before Andy Warhol did Sticky Fingers for the Stones, and the banana for the Velvet Underground, he had already done a hundred of album covers for jazz artists. If you look at them, often the signature of Andy Warhol is bigger than the name of the artist. It was self-promotion even then. We would never have written Hipgnosis like that, at all. On the contrary, we wanted to remain in the background and let the pictures speak for themselves. When we talk about my interest in Maya Deren, I mean, “At Land”, which is one of the great films of Maya Deren, it was so impressive and still is, that I made a film for David Gilmour out of her material for a song called Faces of Stone. She is another surrealist I liked and the enigma she created around herself. In a way Hipgnosis wanted to do that too. We never believed in self-promotion, we never advertised ourselves. We would just go to the studio and the phone would just ring, like that. And thank God, it never stopped ringing and still doesn’t stop ringing. With Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, what’s interesting is that the band said to us, “We actually want to be on the cover, but we don’t want to be on the cover, we want to do something which is very different and something which it shows us but doesn’t show us. Still, we have to have that mysterious kind of atmosphere about us.” How that came about, although Maya Deren was an influence in that kind of worldly view, I saw a Dutch cocoa tin called Droste, and on this cocoa tin there was a woman holding a tray with a Droste cocoa tin, therefore another woman holding a tray with a cocoa tin, holding a tray with a cocoa tin, on and on. A reflective image like when you walk in hotel room and sometimes there are two mirrors at each side of the wash basin, and you turn, and and you can see yourself a thousand times in side. It was a kind of influence. We just thought this was about something else too; it’s about the psychology of the depth of Pink Floyd. Looking through, looking through, looking through and seeing more than just the music, and reading into it whatever you wanted to. Seeing Pink Floyd has a lot of depth, both psychologically within the lyrics and in the music. A lot of levels!
It was a really successful move for Pink Floyd, because, Atom Heart Mother was a big success in America. So, success wasn’t just for you, but also for all the bands that you curated in terms of creativity…
It was interesting, because in those days when you went into a record company, most of the people in had suits on and, a tie, and in the art department, they used to have a white kind of gown, like a surgeon. I remember walking in there with a picture of The Cow, and they completely flipped out. They said “We are not having that. Where’s the name of the band, there is no title”; and because I always had the support of the band, I said, “That is the artwork”. Then later, I was in Los Angeles and I was walking on Sunset Strip when I saw the billboard of The Cow with no text on it. It didn’t say it was a new record and people were asking, “Is that a new movie? Is that a horror film? What is it advertising, what is that about?”. The day the record was released, then bang – they put the title on. And this kind of works! This was almost anti-advertising. It was a non campaign. It was, “Ok, do an image that is so off the wall, so interesting, and let people read what they want into it”. Lateral thinking. And then it will stand out from the rest. It was very successful for us.
A Hipgnosis experience is massively routed in this lateral approach. Opened the way up so much to so many other genres and styles… In fact, also the late Peter Christopherson founding member of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and Coil was part of the studio. How was working with him? What artistic input did he inject into the project?
Peter joined Hipgnosis as an assistant. It is interesting the story. He came in with a portfolio of his work and Storm, and I, were not good in lighting. We wanted to employ somebody who would be good in that way to work with us. And I was so impressed with his pictures. They were all of people lying in different weird positions, and I thought they were beautifully lit, anyway, we employed him. Six months later, we were talking, and I said “You know, you got the job because of those amazing photographs of people. Where were they done, what did you do, was that in the studio?” He said: “No, I was working in a mortuary. They were bodies, I put the bodies in positions to photograph them.” I was like “Oh, my God! Who did we employ here?” Peter brought an interesting way of looking at things with lighting, but also he brought a darkness to us, which was very good. Storm and I had a very volatile relationship, we were always fighting about the art, you know, the pictures versus the idea, this kind of thing. Peter became a catalyst between us two. Then we made him a partner. His Industrial Music, when he started Throbbing Gristle with Cosey Fanni Tutti, Genesis P-Orridge and Chris, they had a lot of publicity around their activities. They were outrageous. They did things you would be arrested even now for obscenity.
There was a lot of misinformation, that Genesis P-Orridge was talking about a few months before he died, about how much the media treated them badly and told a lot of lies.
Yes, that’s correct. I would see Peter on a Monday morning, after they did one of their happening events, at the ICA in London, and they’d been outrageous, and it was on the front page of the newspaper, and I would say “Peter, what are you doing?” He said: “This is my art; you have your art at Hipgnosis, and I’m a part of that, but I have my art over here.” To be truthful, the Industrial Music side of Peter did not affect Hipgnosis at all, but you can see his influence. I love the music they made. Throbbing Gristle invented that Industrial sound. And it was pretty outrageous. I liked the edginess that Peter gave to us. He was unafraid to present ideas that people would never accept. I mean, I’ve got a wonderful picture that Peter did for Paul McCartney as an album cover for him. It was called ‘Tug of War’ and Peter presented this picture, like a Gustav Klimt all in gold of a man hanging himself with a white rope. A Tug of War, and I said to Peter: “You really want me to present this to Paul?” and he said “Yeah”. So I did, and Paul said: “That’s pretty interesting, but it ain’t for me!” Which was fine, because I did what Peter asked me to do, and that was great. He was unafraid to present some thing like that, something that Storm and I would never think of. So, he brought this dark side to Hipgnosis, and added an extra dimension to our studio.
In a way it was the aesthetic of the future, you know, what impact Throbbing Gristle and Industrial Music had over the years. It proved that he was right in a way, because he created something, even with Boy in London, because he designed the punk brand Boy, that he had something to say and something to present to the world.
Peter did the first photographs of the Sex Pistols, ever. It’s amazing when you look at what he did with them. They had a rehearsal studio right behind the Hipgnosis studio. So, we were always very friendly and nice, until one day they were all wearing the Pink Floyd T-shirts, that said, “I hate Pink Floyd”. This was the beginning of the punk and in a way the end of Hipgnosis. These were the new kids on the block, and I respected them and I loved them. And Peter was very much involved in all of that movement.
Over the last two months, a huge part of the world’s population, has been spending time locked down at home during the pandemic. What art movement should we expect as the outcome of the lockdown?
I think we should expect a huge change. I come from the world of analog, and I come from a world of a tactile way of creating of pictures, printing pictures, making collages, doing that kind of thing. When I do them now I do them digitally. However, with the lockdown I think we will experience a lot of people coming up with very interesting work. You know, there is this persona, Lil Miquela – it’s an A.I. system. Which is a virtual influencer. I think we are gonna see a lot more people creating things that don’t really exist – but they do exist in the virtual world. This is almost a science fiction world, and I embrace that, because it’s mysterious, and they live in a world of mystique. They live in a world which is the other side of reality. Anybody, as far as I’m concerned, who lives in that world is great for me. I love it. I think that’s just the beginning. Once these people will become more established with that kind of attitude, we are going to see a resurgence of pictures related to music much more than now. And there are artists that are already doing that. I like, like Arca, for example.
I was getting to that point but you anticipated me, because I wanted to ask you about this new movement that started few years ago from Tumblr – the dark corners of the Internet, that exploded and reached the mainstream and now it’s something evolving and developing in a very interesting way I think. Artists such as Arca, Lil Miquela, Sophie are leading the way.
Then there are some other bands and artists I like, they are very psychedelic, they remind me of Syd Barrett, they remind me of the heady days of Pink Floyd, they have these long solos, and they create visuals which are in the same vein. The only thing I would say, and I do have a slight issue with it, and it’s maybe a financial thing that people can’t afford to spend the kind of money that I was privileged to have creating these kind of visuals. It is that is so much of it is retro – looking back – and when I see pictures of bands with psychedelic lights on album covers, paintings that are done with felt tip pens, and I think, “I really wish you wouldn’t do that. I don’t want them to look back to the past. Create a new psychedelia. It’s all possible. You don’t have to have that old way of looking at things. You know, that was my world. Bring me a new psychedelic world. What I want to see is LSD on the screen, I wanna see LSD here, like this, I wanna see it happening in front of me and all around me. Now, lets have virtual reality, that kind of world you can create, and I want see it really working well. At the moment, and I’ve been involved a lot with virtual reality, the problem for me is that the quality of the pictures is not good enough. Once we combat that, once we create that other kind of world where it’s totally real to you, then, you are moving into another dimension. Aldous Huxley wrote a wonderful book called ‘The Doors of Perception’ about his experience on a mescaline trip. When I read that, it blew my head off, I said “I understand this guy, I can relate to him”. I want to hear that in the virtual world, I want to feel it, to see it in the virtual world. And it’s while coming but it will come. And I’ll embrace it for sure.
You are not looking at the past. Zero retromania.
No. You asked me two questions when you wrote to me. And one of them was am I sick of talking about Pink Floyd. And the answer is “Yes and No”. “The Dark Side of the Moon” came out in 1973, and I see it on every T-shirt in the High Street, and people having it on the side of their bags. I’m fed up with this because, that was ok, but that was then, and this is now. I am frustrated because so many people are looking back at the visual images and I want them to look forward to something completely different. I am looking forward to a Renaissance, the new Renaissance.
I made a quick research about how many Google results you can get about Aubrey Powell + Pink Floyd, and the list was like “so let’s ask to Aubrey if he is happy to talk about the Pink Floyd anymore”…
I am still working as the creative director for Pink Floyd. I am creating two projects for them now, but, new projects, new visuals, new images. That’s exciting for me, and I am enjoying that process and always will enjoy the process. But, to look back all the time, ahhh! Many people ask me dull questions but there’s some very interesting things about Dark Side of the Moon, for example, the Freedom Fighters in Syria, they are using it as their flag, I don’t know if you’ve seen it. They are all standing with their guns and there’s this flag and there is the map of Syria where the white prism line goes down to. Or, the other day, I was in a concert and there were two people from Bulgaria, wearing T-shirts which had the Pink Floyd prism, but it was with Bulgarian colours of the flag. I said: “Why are you doing that?”, and they replied, “Because, we don’t want to join the European Union, so we are protesting by using the Pink Floyd image”. They had made it themselves. I thought, you know what, I was very satisfied because they were using it as a protest, they’ve been using it in an activist way. And that’s great, and I’m proud of it, of course, but I don’t want to look back at that symbol all the time.
Is there any artwork of yours in the past that you would do in a different way, today?
Yes, I mean, the thing is I embrace modern technology. So, if you ask me “was it fun doing work then?” Yes, of course, but to create an album cover would probably take me six weeks”, and now I can do it in six days. The process was so laborious: take the photograph with a camera and a roll of film, process the film, process the picture, go to the dark room, print off hundreds of different variations in order to find the right composition etc. Nowadays you can do all of that like this (flicks fingers) – with your computer and in the digital world. I love that. Would I want to go back to that? No! If you asked me, “Could have I done things better with today’s technology”, without any question, I could have done. I would’ve embraced it. I would have grabbed it like that (tightens fists). I am not nostalgic about that. If you stay nostalgic, you never move on. I work with people who are all younger than me, who are hip to everything that’s going on. I pick their brains all the time. I ask how do you do this, how do you do that… I am interested in that, I am not interested in sitting here and cutting out pictures. That’s old school stuff, I don’t care about it anymore.
Is life a minestrone?
10cc, Life Is A Minestrone! It’s funny you say that because I’m writing a new book right now which is due out next year and it’s all about my relationship with all the people I worked with. Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, This book has a lot of Hipgnosis pictures that have been never seen before. One of them was for 10cc. It was a photograph that I did of an American family with all their possessions, standing outside their house in Florida. We never showed it to 10cc. I found it the other day in the archive, and I blew it up, very big, and it’s absolutely incredible. I wish we could have used it somewhere, somehow. But it was just one of those things that was so off the wall, nobody would have wanted it then, but, to find these gems now, is just fantastic. So, that’s good. Life Is Just A Minestrone!
Beatrice Finauro has been writing of music since the beginning of 00s. She collaborates as a radio host with online radio such as NTS Radio (London), Radio Raheem (Milan) and Le Mellotron (Paris). Over the years she worked for MySpace.com and Condé Nast Italia. She is part of the London-based collective Festival of Italian Literature in London.