Today’s Interview Topic – the making of the album cover artwork for Heaven & Earth’s Dig, a 2013 release on Quarto Valley Records.
I’ve always been fascinated by the work of art historians and scientists who’ve developed and deployed technologies that have allowed them to look beneath the surface of centuries-old paintings to find either earlier versions of those same works or, in the case of 2007 investigation of a Renaissance portrait of a young woman that, after digitally peeling back the layers of oil paints, a work that turned out to be an undiscovered (and incredibly-valuable) masterpiece by Leonardo daVinci (watch this episode of Nova on PBS for the complete story – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/mystery-masterpiece.html). The results of efforts taken by forensic scientists have produced results that, in some cases, have flown in the face of the assumptions and determinations made by art experts (as exemplified by the aforementioned daVinci and a similar episode featuring a work supposedly by Jackson Pollock), while in others, we’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the processes followed by great artists as they experimented with ideas prior to the execution of a masterwork.
As it’s my goal as a journalist (and fan of album cover art) to present you with stories about “the making of” popular album cover images via the interviews I do with the creative talent behind them, I always try and get a better understanding of just how a great image came to life. In many cases, it’s certain that most good album cover artists are constantly building upon what they’ve learned via the execution of previous cover art commissions. In today’s example – the cover for Heaven & Earth’s Dig, done by designer/photographer Glen Wexler – it seems clear that the work he produced for his client came as the result of a concept whose time had finally come, simply being the perfect time for the application of ideas he’d developed over several years and preceding projects.
Being as it is that the band’s music is, in itself, a more up-to-date iteration of classic “arena rock” from a long-ago era (rebuilt using vintage instrumental layers and modern production techniques), I think that you’ll find Glen’s approach to the creation of this album package – the cover, along with the stylish imagery featured on the LP sleeve, booklet, etc. – has followed that of the time-honored traditions used by past masters, with the results just as impressive. In today’s interview, we hear about this project’s details from “the master” himself, as well as his take on how/whether today’s album cover art is done in such a way as it will stand “the test of time”….
Interview with the photographer, Glen Wexler (conducted via email June, 2014) –
Mike Goldstein, Curator, Album Cover Hall of Fame.com – Glen, thanks so much for working with me on this interview. I’m excited to help tell the story behind this great cover, so let’s get started…Can you tell me how and when you first met Heaven & Earth? Did you meet them directly, or through their management or record label? Had you worked with any of them before?
Glen Wexler, photographer – Chuck Wright, who was the bassist on the album, recommended me for the Heaven & Earth band shoot and the album cover. I thought I would get in and out, but I ended up as their creative director, producing the original art assets and directing the videos.
Chuck has been one of my closest friends of over 35 years. He was in the very first band – a popular-but-unsigned LA Prog band called Satyr – that I shot for a school project when I was attending Art Center College of Design in 1977. There was a term-long project that was part of the Art Center’s curriculum called the “Industrial Book.” The school assignment was about picking a company and creating a book, with the intent being to give students an introduction to developing relationships and experience working with a business while creating a cohesive series of images that reflected the culture of the company. Having no interest in the corporate world, I chose to work with a rock band, and it took some persistence to get the school’s approval on my proposal. I then needed to find a band and was introduced to Satyr by a mutual friend. The project became the foundation of my first music portfolio, which was a combination of conceptual images illustrating the songs and portraits of the band. This was before CD booklets, but it was done in a way that was very much like an oversized version of one.
This work helped to get my foot in the door at A&M Records and Quincy Jones Productions. Within a year I had my first gig shooting the band images of The Brothers Johnson for the packaging of Blam. That was a multi-platinum album and opened many of doors. I dropped out of school shortly thereafter to pursue opportunities shooting album covers.
Mike G – And you’ve been busy ever since! With regards to this new record, can you tell me what most-impressed you about the band’s music and, in your opinion, what makes them and their music different from other artists in the business at this time?
Glen W – My original take on the music is that it sounded like a Free or Deep Purple album, with a bit of Zeppelin thrown into the mix. To me, it’s sounds like a record that was lost in the vaults for 40 years. That’s the music from my youth… there was an instant familiarity. The songs are well crafted and the singer, Joe Retta, who is a world-class talent, immediately blew me away. He sounds a lot like Paul Rodgers, and that good! In terms of what’s different than other current artists, I think that these guys are an absolute throwback to a sound authentically rooted in “classic rock”, including vintage keyboards…Hammond B3, Mellotron, etc.
MG – Can you tell me what the inspirations were for your creative approach to the album package? Did their music or performing style provide you with some inspiration as to how to develop the record’s visual style?
GW – I was very familiar with the music, their history and their goal, which was to resurrect and carry the torch of bringing “classic” rock songs to the current market. It is a very ambitious undertaking to reach an audience that tends to hold on to or discovers only “legacy” material. It’s not without serious challenges to attract attention in a market now dominated by pop acts and everything but classic rock. The Stones and Aerosmith have a hard time gaining traction these days with new songs, and here is a band of virtually unknown older musicians after the same demographics. The idea was to do it with the rock swagger and authenticity of 70’s, and the album cover needed to convey this attitude and message. The concept for the cover is the “unearthing of rock and roll.”
MG – When you read about Leonardo DaVinci and his work, you learn about his research, the many sketches he made in his books and, via x-rays, the fact that some of his most-famous works didn’t start out looking like the way they were finished. With that in mind, I am hoping that you can provide some sort of chronology here regarding the various iterations of the design concept you had that led to this final version.
Mothership concept sketch, 2007
GW – I started pitching covers to Heaven & Earth that could be made with budgets in keeping with an indie project, but the guys kept asking for bigger ideas, and they are fortunate to have independent financing. I eventually told them about a concept that I had developed for Led Zeppelin’s 2007 Mothership compilation, which Robert Plant and the label loved, but was shot down by someone on Jimmy Page’s team who wanted a Shepard Fairey-designed cover. You’ll see that the initial Zeppelin version was very similar to the later Heaven & Earth design, but with a tethered Zeppelin rising out of the dig. It was about “the almighty Zeppelin”, still powerful and rising after being uncovered eons in the future.
At the time I met Heaven & Earth in June, 2012, I had just finished a short CGI animation for Tom Scholz and Boston that brought their classic “guitar spaceship” to life…a 48’ projection, which opens their live show.
Guitar “spaceship” CGI texturing test for Boston stage show
Originally, Tom liked the idea of doing an update to their spaceship to give it more of a detailed and photographic “Prometheus” vibe, but at the end of the day he really wanted to stay true to the original classic spaceship as illustrated on their first album cover. As part of our exploratory development for Boston, as a test, we created a CGI spaceship version of a Gibson Les Paul.
Heaven & Earth’s cover is the benefactor of both of the exploratory development exercises we did for Zeppelin and Boston. It was all new CGI, combined with new studio photography and images from Death Valley. In addition to the lighting, tonality and perspective continuity throughout the image, the depth and realism is achieved by the photography and by the photographic realism of the textures added to CGI models. It’s a totally original piece of art, but often the ideas have been bouncing around in my head for years, and it’s a matter of finding the right iteration and a receptive band or label to actually realize the art. The main thing is that it was the right image to visualize the concept for Heaven & Earth.
MG – The client’s always right, right? So, let’s talk a bit about your process. Remembering what little I do from my own art classes, I recall that my teacher wanted her students to think about a project in three phases – First, what is my initial concept or inspiration; second, figuring out what I would like or need to do in order to create my art – in my case, what my plan was to create the comic storyboards that’d direct how my film would look – and finally what would I do in this project that would make it MINE – that is, how would I innovate, or would I follow a scheme that I’d used before?
Do you follow a similar approach and, if so, can you tell me how you applied this process to this project? If you don’t work this way, would you please explain how you typically go from concept to finished project?
GW – My images tend to center first and foremost on an idea. My signature works are photographic narratives of altered or manufactured “improbable realities.” These images rely on the perceived – but waning – credibility inherent in the photographic image. I recombine elements of the real world to create a fantastical vision in which the elements often react in a surreal or absurd manner. This involves the pre-visualization of the finished image, then breaking down the plan for the final outcome into manageable components to be individually photographed and, finally, digitally seamed together.
MG – How did you ultimately choose the talent who would work with you on this effort? Also, can you please clarify who actually did the layout, graphics, logo, any additional photography, lettering, etc.?
GW – I’m very hands-on from concept through the final realization. I did the art direction, photography, photocompositions, lettering, and packaging layouts, as well as suggested the album title, “Dig.” I was also at the printing press in Montreal to supervise the quality control and to dial in the printing.
Of course, I had lots of help from my team, including stylists for wardrobe and make-up, set builders to create the physical sets, CGI artists to create the guitar and crane models, and my digital staff to assist with the file prep and outlining of the photography.
Heaven & Earth logo image
I enlisted my son, Ian, to work on the H&E logo design. Vu Ong – my first assistant – always provides help that is invaluable, and he is also the model you see in the cover image. My friend, Jon Messer, who is a genius with perspective, helped with the initial pencil sketches that were used to show the band and label a rough version with the guitar, and for the schematic plotting of the set and CGI elements. I found and licensed existing images of the decayed buildings to use for the backgrounds with the band photos.
MG – How involved was the band – and/or their management or record label – in the process of deciding what you should produce, and did they provide you with any specific direction? Did they give you enough money and time to do what you wanted to do?
GW – In terms of direction from the band and label, the guitar needed to be a Fender Stratocaster, which is what guitarist and bandleader Stuart Smith plays. They also felt it was necessary to include the lettering for Dig on the front cover which, unfortunately, clutters and distracts from the overall design. Ideally, I think it would have been much cooler to not have any lettering over the image…just the logo on the cart. That’s my only minor disappointment with the cover. Overall, they were very supportive and trusting of my vision.
The money was a lot by today’s standards for an unproven band, but about a third less that what was originally approved for Led Zeppelin. It was enough money to cover the production expenses – which is not a good business model to follow if you want to pay the bills (!!) – but I went into it with my eyes open. This was an image that I wanted to create, there was plenty of time to produce it, and I welcomed and appreciated the opportunity.
MG – When you look at it from concept to final product, about how long did it take you to develop and produce the finished package? Can you recall if there were any special processes, equipment, or other aids used to give us that great package of album imagery?
“Levitation” – used on CD Digipak interior and LP gatefold
Heaven & Earth – band photo shot at the location used for the music videos (alt version) – used in CD booklet and LP inner sleeve
GW – I first created the two photocompositions of the band used in the interior packaging. The approach for the levitation concept and the decayed surroundings came from a discussion with Chuck Wright about the attitude and vibe we wanted to convey. I brought in wardrobe stylist, Chandra Dyani, who had a great feel for the vintage vibe of the late 60’s that we wanted to reference. The original band photography was a one-day shoot, and the post-production was completed in about a week. I did a second session with the band, primarily for press, at the location where I shot the narrative coverage for their first music video, “No Money No Love.”
Heaven & Earth – band photo used on CD Digipak interior and LP back cover
The development of the front cover didn’t start until a month or so after the first photo session. There was still a lot of time before the release date. This was the summer of 2012 and the album wasn’t released until May, 2013. Once we agreed on the concept and the production sketch was approved, the prep, wardrobe and prop styling, and the physical set building were put into motion, which took about 10 days. During that time I created the background plate from photos of a dry riverbed, rock formations and sky, all shot at Death Valley. The studio photography took place over two days. The schedule after the shoot was spread out – there were a few weeks for locking in the CGI of the guitar and crane models and completing the photocomposition, which included blending and illustrating textures on the guitar, and adding the pouring sand.
The H&E logo was an afterthought, but I wanted to incorporate a graphic on the front of the cart. That was designed and subsequently rendered in CGI, first by a jeweler who was commissioned by the label president to make a pendant for the music videos, and then redone by my CGI team for final print versions.
I didn’t start the final packaging layouts until the mastering of the album was completed in February 2013. That in of itself was a major undertaking, as they wanted a 24-page booklet inset with a 6-panel CD package, and a double LP gatefold with color inner sleeves including all of the lyrics.
MG – Thanks for the details – they really serve to show just how complicated an album cover project can be sometimes… Now, as is customary in my interviews, I’d like to ask you a few more questions about some general topics I’d be interested in getting your opinions on. First off, with the electronic delivery of music products growing at a fast pace, are you noticing any more or less enthusiasm on your music industry clients behalf to invest time and money in packaging that stands out?
GW – These days, most fans expect to get music for free, which has devalued the importance of the album cover in the minds of many on the business side. To a large degree, the music has become the band’s calling card, and many bands and labels are unwilling to support their effort with an investment in a strong visual representation. Unfortunately, this perspective is shortsighted. Of course, there are exceptions, with top-grossing artists working smartly to keep their brands relevant with realistic investments into the production value of the packaging, other art assets, and videos.
Dig cover character in the video for “No Money No Love”. This shot from the video was used in the CD booklet and LP inner sleeve.
With the experience of many years in advertising, building a career largely on my work in the music industry, and with the help of some very smart friends and consultants in music marketing, I’ve developed a perspective that it’s not all doom and gloom but, rather, about letting go of a dated paradigm. The challenges are navigating a new and changing playing field. The main thing nowadays is an understanding of how to reach fans and grow an organic base. This includes letting go of the prevalent myths such as the “Internet provides a level playing field.” It’s a matter of investing wisely into promoting relevant and fresh content.
Nothing beats the power of a live performance to reach hundreds or thousands of fans per show, but it’s become a loss leader, or simply unsustainable for most emerging artists. With the absence of radio and TV support, the effort behind touring becomes meaningful when effectively leveraged to reach millions of potential fans online. All that said, the album cover still holds its place and importance at the foundation of the marketing as the potential iconic visual extension of the music.
MG – So, do you see some of your clients more willing to spend up front and then amortize the costs of developing imagery that can be used on merchandise, promo campaigns, stage props, etc.?
GW – This speaks to the core issue of assuming that there needs to be a direct correlation to physically selling the art as part of the packaging or recouping costs with merch. The impact and meaningful value of the artwork is about creating a brand image and attracting consumer awareness. This is what makes the return on the marketing investment less tangible. When there is a lasting impression or association to the artist and their music, the value is real but not necessarily measurable. Creating imagery that reinforces an identity becomes more powerful when there is a design and aesthetic continuity that extends to the merch, advertising, stage props, etc. As in marketing any brand, disconnected imagery and misguided messaging can do much more harm than good. Most bands don’t understand that brand-building is relevant to their marketing, and it can be much easier to dilute than to reinforce. Bands are marketing a lifestyle but, as artists – and often on the music business end – it can be difficult to think in those terms.
MG – What are your feelings about the quality of the album artwork and design you see these days? Are there any designers or musical acts that either/both influenced your work during your career and/or you think are keeping the field alive or important? Do you think album art matters anymore?
GW – I was originally drawn to creating album covers because I love music, and it provided the means of creating images that I wanted to make. I started in this business very young and it took a while to fully recognize the real marketing significance of my work. Also, by virtue of the fact that most of my friends were musicians – and with me processing absolutely zero musical talent – it let me be part of an industry using the talents I do have.
In the days of a physical record store, the album cover had an important role as a point-of-sale marketing vehicle. The notion was that most customers were drawn into the store in order to purchase a specific album, but the covers are like eye candy and everyone then stays to browse. The approach was about attracting attention to an artist or group that reminded a music fan about a song or filled in the blanks about they could expect on the full album. The marketing power of the album cover was very much about generating secondary purchases.
The album art is just as important as it ever was for establishing a brand image for the artists. The supporting imagery will never cease to be a powerful and valuable marketing tool in print or digital media.
When I started creating album covers, there were only a handful of artists and designers who were recognized as leading contributors. Hipgnosis was by far the most influential. These guys blurred the lines between illustration, design and photo to create surrealistic narratives. They pushed the boundaries further than any other commercial artists during the 70s. I learned more about photography as a narrative medium from their album covers than I did in art school.
Nowadays, album art seems to come from countless sources. There are a lot of interesting covers but there doesn’t seem to be the individual influential trendsetters producing the bodies of work you would see from the prolific album cover designers or talented in-house record company art departments of the past.
There is one trend that I absolutely love, which is the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. After so many years of only printing CD packages, it’s a rush being at the printing plant and seeing full size press sheets for an LP again.
MG – How do you think album cover art images help us document human history? Personally, I believe that iconic album cover art in many ways has had a noticeable effect on Pop culture, so I’d like to get your take on this is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
GW – Without a doubt, the album cover plays an important role in our cultural anthropology. People connect and identify with music. It becomes embedded into their being. Certain recording artists and albums represent a person’s lifestyle, important moments, or periods in their lives. The album cover is likely to become an indelible visual association connected to these memories.
In terms of my personal experience, creating album covers provided a playground to experiment, develop a visual style, and to get my images into the mainstream. It was unexpected to see my work so aggressively pursued by the advertising world but, in hindsight, it makes sense that a visual language that resonated on a visceral level and connected to lifestyles would eventually be useful in a consumer based culture to help convince people to buy stuff.
MG – Can you tell us what happened to the original artwork for this release?
GW – The artwork was created digitally, so the files are in my digital archives. I’ll eventually create limited edition prints to sell to collectors.
MG – Finally, are there other final comments or anecdotes about what your experience was during the Dig project? I’d appreciate any other comments or parting thoughts on the subject you’d be willing to provide us…
GW – It’s been an interesting project in that Bruce Quarto, the label president, is committed to getting the very best from the band, allowing them 14 months in the studio to work and re-work tracks. It’s impressive that he was also willing to support the sort of art assets and video production that was typical of launching a new band in the 80’s but is not so prevalent with current rock bands. The budgets for H&E were not remotely in the neighborhood of the spending on top-selling pop acts, but it was nonetheless admirable to see this effort in this market.
Bruce and Stuart have the attitude and conviction that they are going to do things their way…kind of a “build it and they will come” approach. It’s like they built a Formula One car that’s at the starting gate waiting to be fired up. The overall production is great – Stuart and the guys did an excellent job in crafting this album. 20 years ago, with major label support and a conduit to radio and MTV, I have little doubt that this album would have been multi-platinum within the first year.
The irony in all this is that I still believe the original concept and version for the Led Zeppelin Mothership compilation was the right image for that cover. As you know, iconic covers tend to go hand and hand with the stature of the artist and the popular success of the album. For me, that will always be “the cover that got away”. Not because Mothership was such a huge stand-alone success, but it was more about contributing to a musical legacy that’s been part of a life-long soundtrack. My first big concert – and it’s a legendary one – was seeing them at the Forum when I was 14, just after the release of Led Zeppelin II. Those experiences stay with you.
The original Mothership image was conceived with no art references other than building on a visual language that is interwoven in many of my images. So my cover based on that idea didn’t happen, and a stylistic re-interpretation for Boston’s spaceship also didn’t happen. Then along comes this new band and the solution is right in front of me. In a way, it’s cool, because Heaven & Earth is relatively unknown and this project is so out of step with the current market trends, yet it gave us the opportunity to establish a visual mythology for them from the ground up – one that so far kind of exists in this insular bubble removed from popular awareness. That said, the album was released only a year ago, it’s received many glowing reviews and they are about to embark on their first tour. In keeping up with the tradition of hitting the road and winning fans with killer performances, they are determined to make this happen in the same manner that they made the record…old school, on their terms, and with the unwavering support of Quarto Valley Records. All fingers crossed…there is a place in market for these guys, who are all about creating great rock songs – it would be well deserved. It’s truly a story about doing it “their way” and against all odds, but then again, that’s kind of hardwired into the spirit of rock and roll.
Editor’s note – if you’d like to see the final cover for the Led Zeppelin Mothership set (with artwork by Shepard Fairey), here’s a link to the Wikipedia page and the image found on that site –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothership_(album)#mediaviewer/File:Led_Zeppelin_-_Mothership.jpg
About the subject of our interview – Glen Wexler –
Glen Wexler 1998 – New York City
Glen Wexler album art photo collage
Notable album cover credits include – Van Halen – Balance; Slaughter – Stick It To Ya and Stick It Live; Heaven & Earth – Dig; Black Sabbath – Reunion; Rush – Hold Your Fire: Missing Persons – Spring Session M and Late Nights, Early Days; Chaka Khan – Naughty; House of Lords – House of Lords, Sahara and Demons Down; Stir – Holy Dogs; Oslo – The Rise & Fall of Love & Hate; ZZ Top – Greatest Hits
(b. September, 1955 in Palm Springs, California) The son of noted mid-century architect, Donald Wexler FAIA, Glen studied fine art photography at Humboldt State University and then transferred to the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, where he was exposed to the works of leading advertising and fashion photographers, finding this type of work more interesting to him than what a fine art curriculum might provide. Ultimately, it was the music industry that provided the opportunities for innovation and experimentation to hone his vision and craft.
Wexler was interested in album cover art at a young age, with some of his early inspiration coming from the works of the Hipgnosis design firm, whose works graced the covers of many of Glen’s favorite records. He was intrigued by the way their work used photography in new and exciting ways, working to suspend the viewers’ disbelief in what they were seeing. When, at the age of 22, he was given an opportunity to work in the record industry, he left school and went full time into cover design.
Wexler’s first album cover assignment was for Blam! by The Brothers Johnson but, since then, he has been hired to work on images for many well-known musical acts, including rockers the Black Crowes, Black Sabbath, Boston, Peter Frampton, Kansas, KISS, Rush, Van Halen, Whitesnake, YES and ZZ Top, R&B and pop acts including Chaka Kahn and Michael Jackson, and jazz greats including Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. In addition to his album cover projects, Wexler’s photographic projects include ad images, corporate logos, film titles and book covers for clients including Acura, Allstate, AT&T, Adobe Systems, Capital One, Coca-Cola, Dell, Ford Motor, Frito Lay, Master Card, Microsoft, Nike, Pepsi, Pfizer, P&G, Sony, Time Magazine, Toshiba, Toyota, Warner Bros. Pictures and Yahoo, among others. Introduced to digital imaging technology in 1987, Wexler was among the first artists to adopt this technology as a tool in his creative process and is now recognized as a worldwide leader in the use of these technologies.
In 1996, Wexler won first place at The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards for the film poster for Batman Forever and he received the “Photojournalism of the Year” award from the International Photography Awards in 2003. In 2004, he won first place Best of Photojournalism award from the National Press Photographers Association and a “200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide” award from Lürzer’s Archives, while also receiving accolades from the Andy Awards, Beldings, Communication Arts, Graphis, Icon Awards and Photo District News. In 2003, he lectured about album cover work at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH, and his album cover artwork was featured at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ “The Art Of Music” event in 2006.
Books that feature Glen’s photos include 2005’s 25:25 (limited-edition monograph) and The Secret Life of Cows, published in 2007 by PQ Publishers, with the latter book winning an award for best digital imaging book of 2007 from Shutterbug.
To learn more about Glen and see more of his work, please visit his websites at:
About this AlbumCoverHallofFame.com interview –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
Except as noted, all images featured in this story are Copyright 2014, Glen Wexler Studios – All rights reserved – and are used by the artist’s permission.
Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2014 Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.