The Artist Series: A Brian Roettinger Retrospective

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Remember that Jay-Z Magna Carta…Holy Grail album art that appeared as a minuscule thumbnail on your listening device, yet it grabbed your attention immediately for boldly crossing out “JAY-Z” over a picture of the Alpheus and Arethusa sculpture? Or how about Beach House’s Depression Cherry with its ultra-minimalistic, plain dark cherry box with titles akin to Fugazi’s 13 Songs on the top? 

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Album covers are big ideas in small packages that are made for the digital world with an analog ethos–graphic design that cuts through noise in a hyper-noisy, disposable culture to poignantly express itself. This is the world of Brian Roettinger, the renowned American graphic designer who has worked with Beach House, Childish Gambino, Jay Z, Duran Duran, and many more.

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But that’s not all folks. His artwork extends to galleries and books, like Slash: A Punk Magazine from Los Angeles, 1977 – 80 featuring approximately 500 pages of archives from the legendary punk zine turned record label. If your version of punk rock is more Minutemen, less Good Charlotte, then Roettinger’s punk rock-rooted work will resonate loud and clear.

We caught up with Roettinger to gain some insight into his work, the evolution of album artwork through the years, and how he’s delved into other forms of art. Read below. 

OTW: Describe your earliest, most visceral reaction to album art.

Brian: I grew up in a suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Music was always playing in my house. My parents had a modest record collection. I fell in love with them as images, while knowing nothing about the music, or who was who, or what sounded like what; I didn’t care…yet. I would organize them from my favorite to least favorite; they often had a hard time finding anything.

OTW: What was your childhood record store? What was it like? 

Brian: First there was Tempo Records and Tapes. It was a Southern California chain of stores. It was small but packed. I would buy tapes before I was a teenager, and they were behind the counter so you would have to ask to see them. By the time I was a teenager, I had friends that worked there–I never paid for anything after that. In fact, no one I know did. They ended up going out of business.

OTW: What record drew you in for its artwork, yet failed you musically?

Brian: Pretty much everything Hipgnosis made. Besides the heavy hitters like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

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OTW: What record threw you for its artwork, yet rewarded you musically?

Brian: Reasonable Doubt, Enter the Wu-Tang, Fear of a Black Planet. Most hip hop records from the 90s to early 2000s.

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OTW: Did you ever come across J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame as a kid? It freaked me out. Any records you can recall that haunted you as a child?

Brian: Yeah with the weird potato head looking guy? As a kid, the freakier the better. Something I could sit with and analyze for days, I loved.

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OTW: What period in your life was the most influential to your work as an artist? 

Brian: Mid 90s–early 2000s. I was playing music, had a record label, and was going to school. The DIY punk/hardcore scene

OTW: You have created legendary album covers for the likes of Jay-Z (Magna Carta) and St. Vincent (St. Vincent). Your artwork will forever be bound with these albums in the annals of music history as watershed moments. Do you ever just want to cut a motherfucker when you see your artwork in the microscopic format of digital music? Is this era a total letdown for you?

Brian: [laughs] “Cut a motherfucker.” Well at times it’s a bummer–the small scale limits what’s legible and what’s not. Many of the covers from the golden age of album packaging would no longer be as effective if they were designed with the LP scale in mind, not the 2 inch square. With the rise in popularity of vinyl and deluxe physical packaging, there is still so much to be done.

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OTW: There’s an upside right to this era, right? Right? I can’t find one. Please let me know if you do.

Brian: I think the days of CDs are numbered, which maybe is okay. Now with the change of rules in Grammy voting that allows streaming-only music to be eligible, there will be a lot less CDs released… I think? Just need to figure out a fair format for artists to have their work streamed and be compensated properly.

OTW: Your work feels like the bastard lovechild of Raymond Pettibon and Ed Ruscha. How influential were they to your work as an artist?

Brian: Pettibon for his sheer volume and humor of course. Ruscha’s word paintings and his use of word play are pretty influential. I think I could speak for a lot of graphic designers who would say so, or any designer’s who’s interested in typography and letterforms.

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OTW: Do you feel the internet diminishes the scarcity and sacredness of art? Let me rephrase that: Does the internet perpetuate hacks from the genre of art you’re in? 

Brian: I think the internet has only created an amalgamation of ideas and aesthetics and styles. We are living in a collage culture. A generation or a time that’s okay with borrowing, stealing, lifting, appropriating etc. I guess I’m okay with some of it. There has to be a level of knowledge and research to know what you’re stealing or borrowing from. Having a naive or laissez-faire mentality is what perpetuates the recycling or uninventive ideas.

OTW: May I call you a letterist?

Brian: Not really. I’m just intrigued by language, words and visual communication, and so they often find their way into my work.

OTW: Do you consider yourself a Los Angeles artist? If so, what is it about this city that fuels inspiration?

Brian: I live here, so I guess so. It’s so familiar and comfortable to me that I tend to forget about it. You become a product of your environment. Its so cliché to say “I love this city,” but I do, everything—the color, the smell, the people, the light, the speed, my friends, the history. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t feel the same if I lived in Berlin or New York. You just end up having a relationship with your city. Also, for years it felt that the art and design communities outside of the city could care less less about it. It was an underdog for years; I wish it still was…

OTW: Your publishing house, Hat & Beard, is about to release Slash: A Punk Magazine from Los Angeles, 1977 – 1980 about a very under-appreciated, seminal Los Angeles record label. Explain how it all came together and what we can expect.

Brian: The book focuses on the time from 1977–80.  It was the first wave of punk in LA and Hollywood, and during those years, it was a magazine, not a label yet. The book is solely about the people and bands that were there and apart of the culture. It’s composed primarily of magazine reproductions and tons of unpublished photographs.

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OTW: Will there be a sequel? What about the Slash era that released L7, Los Lobos, Violent Femmes and Faith No More?

Brian: Ah, I wish. I doubt it though.

OTW: Now that you’re doing shows and publishing, will you be more selective about album art?

Brian: I’ve always been pretty selective, so it’s no different.

OTW: Which musician(s), living and dead, would you like to album art with?

Brian: In no order: David Bowie, Public Enemy, New Order, Johnny Cash, Grace Jones, Biggie, Prince…I could keep going.

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