Behind the Brush: Interview with artist Sean Reynolds Williams

When I contacted Sean Reynolds Williams on his artist Facebook page about possibly printing a poster version of his landscape for the gatefold 2xLP version of Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction, I never thought that two weeks later we’d be cruising through downtown San Francisco on our way to a Cormorant gig at Slim’s. First off, I thought he lived in Arkansas. He doesn’t, at least not anymore. Williams moved out west with his girlfriend about a year ago to pursue a lead with a possible supporter who had connections in the Bay Area art community. That fell through, but his dream-like work stands on its own. Hence, the stunning, otherworldly art for the equally stunning full-length by his Arkansas buddies Pallbearer. Initially, we planned to do this interview the night of the show, but we ended up talking about politics and the moral state of the world at a pizza joint next to the venue instead. That’s just what happens when two chatty dudes with common interests hang around for any length of time. The following is an edited transcript of a phone conversation a week later.

— Greg Majewski

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How long have you known the guys in Pallbearer?

Actually, me and Joe [Rowland, bass] might as well have been roommates throughout all of college. When I first went to school, he lived across the hall from me and my roommate. The next year, he moved directly across from us again. Then after that, some of his roommates separated off and he moved in with us for the rest of school. So I’ve known him since 2003. And I did work for the old band he was in with Brett called Sports.

How long ago did you make the move to San Francisco?

I’ve been out here for right around a year now. Like I said there were opportunities so I dragged my ass out here, and then they fell through. The small amount of success that I have gained has put me in such a better place. It’s put me in a place where I just want to do this. I moved out here because my life back there was just stagnating. I wanted to try and do my own work. I try to keep in touch with the Pallbearer guys. It’s weird we’re doing this interview, because a year-and-a-half ago, I was just doing artwork for my friends’ band.

How long have you been creating art?

I got into drawing art in the second grade. I’m lucky that I knew what my passion was since I was a kid.

What first inspired you to do this?

When I was that young, I loved video games. I wanted to make video game characters. I grew up a little but still wanted to draw cartoons and got heavily into anime in like sixth grade. I just like the older stuff more, which is apparently the story of my life. [Laughs] But I grew up a little bit more and getting into the music and hearing The Smiths. When I was in high school I thought that Morrissey and The Pixies were the greatest poets who ever lived. And I was still drawing anime but I was starting to see people like Jacob Bannon and Aaron Horkey.

His poster from the 2007 Isis 10th anniversary tour is framed on my wall right now.

Aaron Horkey makes me want to kill myself. [Laughs] That guy just shames everyone.

How did you start drawing art?

The same way everyone else was started. I wanted to make stuff for bands. I saw shirts that looked great and I wanted to do that. I remember in my senior seminar class, my teacher asked me, “What the hell do you think you’re going to do with your life?” And I was like, “I’m going to make t-shirts for bands.” I got really into screen printing when I was in school. Then I became a lot more interested in doing album art.

What went into making the cover for Sorrow and Extinction?

When designing the cover, the idea literally just started from saying, “We’re going to have a door”. It was almost just like that. This is when I was back in Arkansas with them. There were things being tossed around like the idea of someone being on a long journey and resting. I was watching an old black and white movie with Joe at one point in time and there was this Satan figure, and he opens up his cloak and there’s a tiny door inside. And I remember watching that, but I don’t remember if that’s because we had discussed the idea and Joe wanted to show it to me. And the door without a doubt is the most important aspect of the entire design. I designed everything to point to it. You can follow the huge, statuesque Grim Reaper figure, his eyes are pointing down towards the door. The small other figure is facing the door. In a lot of the light posts and lines are pointed towards the door. It is not quite perfectly center but it’s pretty close.

It’s definitely the focus of the entire picture.

These are the implements of what I did to make the door important. You’ve got the ship rocking around it, and the entire image is made with cool colors, and the door is bright red and that pure bright red doesn’t appear anywhere else in the picture.

These first two images are a little blatant. They’re essentially what went into the creation of the guy. It’s what I was talking about with my personal message within the work. Pallbearer knows that I used these images as influence in construction of them. And the Led Zeppelin image with the dude holding the lantern. You take those three images and shove them together. The Led Zeppelin one was the feeling of this sort of monolithic figure. It’s so simple but it’s strong. So you see you mix those together and you see the guy on the cover.

The play on perspective is crazy because when you first see it it looks like his right arm is a sickle. The way his right arm curves and frames it, but when you really look at it in perspective, you realize that’s his arm opening up and his cloak becomes the cosmos in the background.

How do you add otherworldliness and majesty and what you want this guy to have? What I thought was, what if he draws open the cape and there’s nothing. It puts the figure as something beyond our comprehension. There’s an idea that this gate is manifesting out of him and he has the ability to create this doorway out of nothing. You can see his arm and see his hands gripping the cloak as he opens it but then you can’t see anything inside of it.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the artwork was that it was in this huge purple border. Did you guys always intend for it to be like that?

Yeah, it was always going to be a smaller image inside of a larger square. I will go so far as to say that was something the band wanted. They sent me a lot of old ‘70s album covers, and as they’re going through them they see that a lot of them have that. There definitely was an intent to seem old. Here’s another one.

I love stuff like this. Maybe it’s my old school metalhead love.

The Slithis cover, if there was something where I was like, “Man I hope it looks like this.” And the band being VHS fans, and aside from pulling from old albums, there’s probably a sense of things like this as well.

Then did you design the inside of the gatefold LP with the cover or was that after you knew it was going on vinyl?

They were not made simultaneously. But anyone can see in a lot of the work I’m doing with Pallbearer that the same figure is there.

Now that we’re talking about the doorway, this might be completely off, but I’m imagining holding the gatefold LP in my hands, I see the cover, I flip it open and see the 12×12 landscape and it’s the human bursting through the doorway into the world he’s in.

I don’t want to say too much about the meaning, but yes, if you see that picture and your brain tells you something more is going on there, then something more is definitely going on there. And the figure is the same in the all of the images. That’s why that figure is totally nude, because it is the basest of us. And any type of regalia would single something out, it wouldn’t allow you to feel connected to him. The message is that he is everyman. My intent was to make a base image of man so that the viewer could essentially have an internal dialogue with him and be put in his shoes and to think about doorways. In my mind doorways are a symbol of change and transition. The point is that maybe you should be bringing about change as well.

You said that Pallbearer doesn’t depress you so much as it inspires you.

I’m a huge fan of montage music, and that’s what I hear in their music. “Keep going.” Underneath all the negativity that surrounds you everyday. So yeah, Pallbearer doesn’t depress me, Pallbearer makes me go, “Fuck yeah, dude.” Is that their intent? I don’t know. I’ve told them that I hear that in the music, and they’re like, “That’s awesome.” It’s just phrases I hear in the music, like “I rest to gather up my strength.” You don’t gather up your strength to give up. It’s those types of lines, those tiny glimmers of hope deep down.

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Pallbearer – “An Offering of Grief”

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On that note, you also made a music video for the Pallbearer song “An Offering of Grief”.

Yeah, I just really liked that style of animation used in Kanashimi no Belladonna. It’s not a real video or anything, it’s just something I made. I made it in a day, and they posted it the day after I released it. I’d made some videos before and used some video editing software. I just wanted to tell a really quick story that emulates the types of things that fill my head and the kinds of emotions when I hear those songs. You just get beaten down but there’s this sort of emblem of triumph just for going for it. The last scene where the one guy stands up but he fails. That’s the story in the movie. This witch is basically seduced by the devil and she is doing good for the townspeople but the monarchy or overarching society doesn’t like I so she’s outcast, and after being outcast she surrenders herself to Satan and sort of comes back and causes a huge disaster and reaps vengeance upon the town. The main guy in the movie doesn’t really stand up to her until the end, which is the part I decided to show. I chose the movie because there’s this sense of revolution and that is something I get from their music. There are a lot of great animations in the movie, but the opening scene of the town literally dissolving away, yeah, I saw all of that. [Laughs]