Graphic Content: Artist Alex Eckman-Lawn
This is the first in a series of interviews with artists who work with metal bands conducted by IO resident photographer and artist Caroline Harrison. — Eds.
You may not know his name, but chances are you’ve seen Philadelphia-based artist Alex Eckman-Lawn’s work. Prior to speaking with him, I asked him to email me a list of all the bands he’s worked with, and I received a list of 38 bands, including names like Yakuza, Maruta, Nero di Marte, Rosetta, Starkweather, Dim Mak, and Krieg, as well as the record label Willowtip. And they were just the clients he could remember offhand. While impressive, a list of this length comes as no surprise: making a living as an illustrator requires a punishing workload.
His work is a distinctive mix of more traditional media, like drawing and photography, and heavy digital manipulation. Eckman-Lawn also works in comics and publishing. He was been the sole illustrator for the horror comic book Awakening, is currently illustrating an adventure book for kids ages nine to fourteen, and produces personal work that he displays in galleries.
And, in Eckman-Lawn’s own words, he’s a “big nerd for metal.”
I spoke with him about his art, his love of metal, and the relationship between the two. We tried to keep the nerding out to a minimum.
. . .
How did you start listening to metal?
I didn’t listen to Metallica or any of those bands you’re supposed to start with, you know? I’m 29, and I think my generation is the one that grew up with Limp Bizkit and Korn. I had Three Dollar Bill Y’all, that first Limp Bizkit album. In my defense, I was in 8th grade. I remember listening to that and not really liking it that much, but being into how angry it was. A lot of that has to do with just being in middle school, right? I’m glad to say that I avoided a lot of REALLY embarrassing ones, though it’s hard to beat Limp Bizkit. I was also around for Napster. I remember finding songs by mistake. I’m pretty sure I heard Converge and Dillinger for the first time just because they were related to whatever it is I was looking for.
You do a lot, and I mean a LOT, of work for different bands. How do you involve the music in your creative process when you’re working for bands?
I mean, obviously I have to play a part. Any time I work with a band I wanna hear what they do. The unfortunate thing is that you can’t like every band you work with. Without naming names, there have definitely been times I’ve heard what they do and I get it but it’s not really what I’m into. So I’ll try and listen to things in that genre—I don’t know if that’s the shittiest thing to do—that feel artistically congruent with what they’re doing, but that I can still get psyched about.
But honestly music is a big part of who I am. There’s like, three things I like in life and music is one of them—
What are the other two?
Art and writing. I guess some people might just count that as one thing.
I’m gonna listen to the shit that I’m into no matter what. I’m working on a couple things right now, including a gallery thing with me and my roommate, and to get myself psyched enough about making pictures, that Bölzer EP from last year—you know the song "Entranced by the Wolfshook” or something ridiculous, that one ridiculous riff that’s so good—I listened to that on loop for like, four hours. I feel like nothing has made me feel like life is worth living the way that riff does. That’s unrelated to the specifics of what I’m doing but if I’m going for a dark aesthetic it makes sense to have some cult shit going on in my ears, right?
How do you think music has impacted your personal work?
I was raised kind of intentionally non-religious. My parents met in seminary and then both quit within a couple months, so I think they were pretty careful to keep my options open. But the grade school I went to was a Quaker school, and weird ritual stuff started creeping into my life without any context. And that shit bugged me out because I thought it was so creepy—people all chanting and stuff together is fucking weird—and also powerful in a way. So a lot of my work is trying to get that feeling—that weird mysterious feeling, like you’re almost scared and intimidated. It’s something bigger than just sitting there in a room with people, but also sort of fun. Is that super artsy?
I think that’s what some music tries to accomplish as well. It’s really interesting to see those parallels in your work.
That’s good—cause that means what I’m saying is not complete horseshit. That’s great news.
Do the boundaries between your personal and commercial work ever blur?
It blurs occasionally. I don’t know how familiar you are with my portfolio but I do a lot of comic book stuff also.
It’s funny, I see a lot of Dave McKean in your work.
Yeah for sure. In college, 100%. He was one of my art school boyfriends, you know what I mean? Him and Ashley Wood and a few other dudes, I was like, this is the kind of work I wanna make. Now, I like his stuff a lot but it’s not representative of what I wanna do. My personal work—that’s where I want there to not be rules about things, you know?
You sent me one or two images that looked newer . . .
I’m glad you brought that up. That’s the most recent stuff I’ve done. It’s not as dark, but I feel like it’s still about really nasty shit. Do you listen to Lightning Bolt at all? If I’m honest, they’re kind of annoying but they’re one of my favorite bands ever. That cheerful sound—it’s colorful and energetic and fun, but it’s super sinister too. It just sounds like something’s wrong and gross. It’s still menacing. So for me those pieces are still about all the unhappy feelings. To be able to combine an aesthetic that’s not just dark and skulls and still get that stuff across is more exciting to me sometimes.
A lot of metal art is—I won’t say the same, but there’s a vocabulary. I’m always excited by artists that are using that vocabulary but understand an album cover for a really evil band can have some really bright colors in it. Even if I don’t mean it to be, my artwork is about chaos. Not in the end of the world way, but just sort of being overwhelmed—the feeling of not being able to handle all of what life is.
Do you find themes or images that you've been experimenting with in your personal work cropping up in the work that you do for bands?
I keep sort of trying to. I sent a whole bunch of stuff to Hacride before we settled on something that fits the album. I think we chose something that worked, and I’m happy with it, but it’s a little bit less weird than a lot of the stuff that I was sending at first. So I don’t know. Maybe I do need to just relax and let it happen on its own. Because for a while I feel like I was getting really excited about the stuff that I was doing on my own time and being like, “you guys should like this stuff too.” But you need to fit the aesthetic of the band, above all else.
Are there any album artists within metal or other genres that influence the way that you work?
Jake Bannon was a big hero of mine. I remember loving the art for Converge albums and not realizing that it was him. Early on in art school, thinking about approaching art the way that he did, even if I wasn’t doing it with the same materials, was something that helped me find my voice. Lately, I really like Justin Bartlett. He’s intentionally crude.
He did a recent Lord Mantis album cover.
That one is disgusting. Talk about art that makes perfect sense for a band. I think he did the Dragged Into Sunlight stuff too, didn’t he? That stuff is fuckin’ scary. It looks violent and upsetting and it’s genuine. It’s not just a detailed drawing of a skull and lots of swoopy lines. Honestly, the most upsetting part of it for me is that her (the figure on the album cover's) anatomy just makes no sense—she’s like a weird burlap bag. He’s doing that style in a way that is really cool, and he actually gets an emotional response. And it’s really easy to just sort of draw that way on purpose and have it look like you don’t know how to draw. I’m obviously not working the same way that he does, but his images get me psyched. I would like to think that there’s some kind of a similarity, maybe not in the way that we make art, but in our ideas about it.
The funny thing is, metal right now has a lot of really talented dudes making art. Metal is such an aesthetic thing, there aren’t too many other kinds of music where the aesthetic of it is as important as the sound. I think that’s something that’s really great.
Do you think the limited opportunities for huge commercial success in metal makes artists more aesthetically adventurous?
I think it probably comes down more to the bands getting to make the decisions. I’ve never had a label contact me. Maybe once? A band finds me. There are also still very marketable bands that I think have pretty boring art usually. I think—well this will come back to bite me in the ass—but like, Meshuggah is one of my favorite bands, and has been since I was a kid. But their art is no good. And they’re a big band. They make plenty of money.
Speaking of bands, what are you listening to these days?
I do like the new Behemoth, because I felt like they were getting kind of stagnant—in a way that I enjoyed, but there were no surprises left. And this album is so much sneakier sounding, and I really like that. And I mentioned Bölzer’s EP. That Gorguts album is great, I still listen to that. I got that Gridlink album, speaking of album covers that I don’t like, and it’s really solid old school grind, which is my jam. And then Nails. Just like, all day. I can’t get enough of that album. Now that you’ve asked me I want to talk about every band I like. I thought Vhöl was cool, and a lot of other people were not into it. Inquisition—they have a really cool album cover. I dunno if you’ve seen it. It’s like, really silly and classically stupid, like serpent monster with planets coming out of tubas and shit, but it’s like, it’s great.
Oh jeez. I dunno, I guess there’s a lot of new weird metal that people are getting into. Keep that up—support bands that aren’t boring. But this goes back to what I was saying before: if you’re hiring artists for your band? I always like to see some art that isn’t just like, a grimy pigeon on a skull. That stuff was really cool for a while but I’m tired of it and I wanna see something new.