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Interview: Dennis Dread

Dennis Dread, with Tim Call (The Howling Wind, Aldebaran)

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Dennis Dread is a kind man. Last month, he was kind enough to give away a signed print of his album cover for Darkthrone’s Dark Thrones and Black Flags. He was also kind enough to give away a Frank Frazetta-themed mixtape, downloadable here. Then he was kind enough to answer a bunch of your questions. He has given you more than you ingrates deserve, so listen up.

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Since you are clearly a master of the ballpoint pen, how have you come to deal with the claggy black ink deposits that inevitably form on the tip and ruin your artwork? Do you try and work it into the piece, hope nobody notices, start over, or hurl the pen at a loved one? (from CW)

Thanks for the compliment, CW! I would’ve preferred to be Master of the Universe, but I’ll settle for ballpoint pen. I have a rag on my desk for wiping the tip of the pen. If you don’t wipe the tip at regular intervals, you’ll be plagued by ink deposits that suddenly spill out onto the paper. Be careful! When you stare into the ink, the ink also stares into you!

Greetings, fellow PDXer. First off, nice touch on the Sinatra tune – it’s such a morbidly inward-looking record – perfect for rainy grey days. Aside from that, your use of shading is incredible – unbelievable that it’s from a ballpoint. My question is this – what kind of paper can take that much abuse, and isn’t your drawing hand a complete wreck after this much detail-oriented use? (from Jason)?

Glad you like the Sinatra tune, Jason. It is indeed perfect for rainy Portland days and goes especially well with a cup of Stumptown coffee. I generally use hot-press Strathmore illustration board. The smoother the surface, the better. Illustration board can take lots of abuse so I can really push the ink around. Regarding self-abuse, I think my eyes tend to get tired before my hands. A good practice is to play records when you draw. That way every 20 minutes or so you’re forced to get up and flip the record.

Part of what makes your work so much fun is your use of recurring characters. You’ve cited Derek Riggs before as an influence, and the zombie characters you created for Darkthrone and Engorged seem kin to his Eddie. What about the giant eyeball on the covers you’ve done for Abscess? What are the origins of that idea? (from pseudonymous)

I worshipped all those early Iron Maiden covers when I was a kid! Still love ’em all. Everything up through Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is pretty much perfect, and Derek Riggs is unquestionably one of the best heavy metal artists of all time. I just saw Maiden again a few weeks ago near Seattle and they were AMAZING as always! That’s exactly how heavy metal should age. But to answer your question, I have no idea where those giant eyeballs came from for Abscess. Chris Reifert and I talk on the phone every few months, and we both share a mutual love for obscure psychedelic music, so I guess they just…crawled out of the shadows of my mind.

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Engorged – Where Monsters Dwell (2004)

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A small yet recurring thread that surfaces throughout much of your work is an element of humor, or more appropriately, the absurd. How important is humor to you? Do you think it has a place in heavy metal? (from Van D.)

I have to be careful how I answer, because while I’m aware that an element of humor emerges in my work, I’m also aware that laughter can create an unintentional escape valve that defuses the immediate impact of art. This is true for visual art as well as music. Humor probably comes through in my artwork because I absolutely enjoy what I do to the fullest. I frequently laugh out loud when I draw. But I still take my work very seriously and put in agonizing hours. In other words, the “comedy” in my work is not meant to provide “relief”. To use the film industry as an analogy, self-conscious humor killed horror films during the late 1980’s. Filmmakers dumbed down the emotional impact of the genre as they appealed to broader and less demanding audiences. I much prefer the nihilistic horror of the 70’s and early 80’s – films that were raw, absurd, disorienting, intense, terrifying, AND funny. Hope that makes sense.

As someone who is clearly good at what he does, are there any artists out there that you’re jealous of and wish you could have created something akin to their talents? (from Gaia)

I’m jealous of any artist that can sell a painting for thousands of dollars and keep the wolves from scratching at the door! Other than that, I don’t compare myself to others. Jealousy is not a productive use of one’s energy and, honestly, I have better things to do with my time. But I do get frustrated when I see a great record that has terrible cover art. Roky Erickson’s The Evil One is a good example. I love that record, but the cover is terrible. The Swedish band Graveyard is a more recent example. Very good record with very bad artwork. If they had asked me, I would’ve drawn something for free! It’s not jealousy so much as the sense of a missed opportunity.

What came first? The artwork or the metal? And how did each influence the other’s creative growth? (from I, Monarch)

The artwork. Followed very soon by the metal. And the two have remained very consistent for my entire life. Of course, one can hardly consider scribbling on surfaces “artwork”, but I’ve been scribbling on surfaces for as long as I can remember. My older brother gave me his copy of KISS’ Destroyer when I was four years old, and I was totally fascinated by the cover. I soon discovered Black Sabbath and other stuff like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery with H.R. Giger’s great painting on the cover. I was initially much more interested in the imagery than the music, but at some point very early on the two passions melded forever.

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ELP – Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
Story behind artwork

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What music do you listen to when your drawing, and are there any bands you’d particularly like to work with in the future? (from Jonesy)

I listen to all kinds of music, depending on what I’m working on and what stage I’m at in the process. I find horror soundtrack music very conducive to letting the mind unhinge and the hours melt away. I really like the soundtrack to The Devil in Miss Jones, definitely not a typical porn score. The Shining and The Road Warrior soundtracks are also favorites. There are many bands I would like to work with in the future! Despite the glut of subpar bands, this is actually a great era for underground music. To namedrop just one unexpected choice, I’d really love to work with Rob Coffinshaker from Sweden. I have no idea how to get in touch with him but that would be an excellent collaboration.

Dennis, what is your collaboration with bands like when you do LP covers? Do they have a clear idea of what they want and you render it, or do you listen to the LP and draw what the music inspires? (from anna)

I turn down the vast majority of commission requests that I receive and only work with bands that I resonate with on some deeper level, so that tends to weed out people I won’t enjoy working with or who will not allow me the freedom I require to create the best work possible. Every project is a bit different, but we always discuss the direction and important themes of the music before I get started. I never show sketches prior to sending the finished work, so the bands I work with tend to trust my instincts. That’s fairly unorthodox, but it seems to work well for me. I’ll give you an example of an interesting collaboration: for the latest Darkthrone cover, Ted and Fenriz wanted a traditional American Indian theme, complete with headdress and totem pole. It didn’t feel right to take that direction, so I convinced them to let me push things into a sort of post-apocalyptic realm of ambiguous setting. The tribal element they were going for still comes through loud and clear, but I think it’s ultimately more thought-provoking than just throwing a zombie in Indian garb on a mountain. In the end, we were all pleased with the results. So much so that Peaceville produced a limited vinyl edition that featured an archival quality print of the cover art.

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Darkthrone – Circle the Wagons (2010)

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While death is the prevalent theme in your work, what factors of life inspire your work? (from Heathen)

I have no idea why I am compelled to draw or what inspires me on my path. It certainly isn’t fame and fortune. Somehow even when I take long periods away from the studio, I always find myself eventually drifting back to the work. Some psychologist probably has a theory. From my own personal observations, it seems that some people are just obsessed and compelled to do certain things. There is an unspoken flame driving us onward against all odds and common sense. I recently read Tom Warrior’s fantastic new book Only Death Is Real and was reminded of this obsessive compulsion. Inspiration is an ephemeral, fleeting, and highly personal force, probably best left undefined.

To the untrained eye, it appears as if album covers for “underground” metal / thrash / crust bands have changed very little in the past 30 years. How do you personally think album artwork has progressed (for better or worse) during this time, especially in regards to themes and artistic style? (from lene)

You’re probably asking the wrong person, because I tend to gravitate toward the primitive and regressive, and I personally adore much of the crude album cover artwork of the past 30 years. The most notable “progression” I’ve seen has been the uninspired rush toward digital artwork and hasty production. I’m certainly not an advocate of this movement. The other shift I’ve seen is the collapse of the music industry, and with it the end of a particularly fertile era of fantastic album cover art. If you get your music exclusively through downloads and MP3’s, you probably don’t even know what you’re missing. As I indicated earlier, despite the modern trend toward instant gratification and mediocrity, this is actually a great era for underground music and art. There will always be a very small but fiercely devoted core of musicians and artists that, against all odds, creates monolithic work that resonates through the years. Those are the musicians and artists that interest me most. I hope decades from now there will be some kid in Peru or Finland or Pennsylvania that discovers my album artwork for the first time and feels that flame ignited inside them.

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Dennis Dread blog
Dennis Dread official site

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