Even if you didn’t realize it, you’ve probably run into some of Brian Mercer‘s artwork. Maybe it was the cover of the last Zoroaster album, or the posters for any number of Small Stone showcases (last year’s in Mercer‘s native Philadelphia comes to mind), including this year’s SXSW, or t-shirts and posters for the likes of YOB, Lamb of God, Black Tusk and countless others. Mercer‘s art, with his meticulous attention to detail, careful lines and intricate patterning, seems to embody the best elements of the bands he’s working for. The thick black spaces that contrast the often colorful designs and the rich yellows, reds and blues that show up carry with them a weight that’s right in line with crushing distortion and fuzzed out tonality.
He’s been working under the Mercerrock banner since 2002 (website here), and I was surprised to learn through our email exchange that Mercer didn’t attend art school. It’s remarkable, since his aesthetic is so cohesive and his work executed with such precision and consistency — I guess I just thought that’s what they taught you. In any case, he’s picked it up on his own, and as more and more acts and labels are requesting his work, he’s quickly becoming one of rock art’s rising stars in the modern poster revival. Some folks just have it… and then they work really hard on top of that and are successful. Funny how that happens.
His love of the music shines through in the interview below, and at the end of the day that’s what matters most. His recent work for the Metalliance Tour is the excuse for the conversation, but more than that, I wanted to get a sense of where Mercer was coming from as an artist, who inspired him to get his start, and how his style developed over his years working for bands. As you’ll see, his experience is as distinct as the material it’s led him to produce.
Q&A is after the jump. Special thanks to Steve Seabury for facilitating.
How did you get started drawing? Did you go to school for art or design, and what was it that inspired you to want to do it in the first place?
I’ve always drawn in some way since I was a kid. My mother is an artist and I got a hold of a couple of her sketchbooks. She really encouraged my younger brother and myself to be creative. Plus my father was a carpenter so we had that craftsmen influence behind us too. We’d root through their records and draw. It wasn’t some hippie commune but we were always into something creative.
As far as schooling I had the worst art classes ever taught through four years of high school. I went to a Catholic high school and the nun would go on forever about miracles and the bible. It was terrible. My focus was to get out of there and get to a decent art school. I was accepted to a bunch of really good schools but when I saw the price tag for that “education” it made no sense to me. I knew I had some talent going in but I would be in debt forever trying to pay back those school loans. It wasn’t like I was goin’ to school to be a doctor or a lawyer. I was going for art and I really didn’t know of any millionaire artists. In hindsight, I kind of wish I went to those schools for the experience but I went the long way around.
What inspired me? I guess just to make things. Whatever I was into I just got involved with it. I had been listening to a ton of old punk and classic rock records but hadn’t been to a show in years. One night I walked into the Southern Domination Tour show at the Khyber in Philly. The line up was Alabama Thunderpussy, Dixie Witch and Suplecs. After that show I was bitten. Completely charged to get involved with the bands I liked. You couldn’t argue with the energy.
Talk about the development of your style. Are there elements in the work of others that you admire and try to incorporate into what you do?
As I get older I think less and less about developing a style. I think now it’s more pushing the limits of what I’m capable of as an artist and letting the chips fall where they may. Early on I was compared to Derek Hess to the point that it was annoying. I liked his stuff but I never set out to be anyone but me. Then someone called me on it. I just wasn’t finishing drawings. Just scribbling stuff and sending stuff out. That has completely changed. Now I dip in between a couple of directions. There’s the line-drawing stuff. Then me fooling around with religious imagery to mess with people’s taboos. Now as of late there this collage thing I’ve been doing that’s kind of fun and a throwback to my skateboarding ‘zine days.
As far as others inspiring me it’s a long list but I’m a child of Pushead. The work he did for Zorlac Skateboards back in the day blew my mind. I hated riding the boards but the graphics really inspired me. There was also a ton of comic artists that I was really into but Jack Kirby is and was King for me. You see a bunch of his stuff in the backgrounds of my posters. As far as contemporary guys, John Santos Jr., Baizley, Tom Denney and David D’Andrea all really get the juices going for me. Then I love how free Jay Ryan, Dan Grzeca and Guy Burwell‘s drawings are. Real special stuff.
Do you have anything in particular you especially enjoy drawing? Would you say you have a trademark that runs throughout your work?
I don’t know if there is one special thing that I can’t wait to get at sketchbook. Maybe I get excited about the project. I would like to think the main trademark in my work was being fair with the people I work with. That and doing whatever I can to express what they do in some sort of visual format.
Tell me about your creative process. How do you get started with initial sketches, and do you prefer when someone gives you an idea to work from, or would you rather work from scratch on your own?
Initial sketches usually come from a band’s vibe. Then maybe some image research. From there it’s working a couple of different things on paper till I’m ready to start inking things. As of late the sketches have been less pencil work. Just a few lines then flesh it out with pens, brushes and the brush pens I use.
I really have no problem with someone giving me a concept for a piece. Cuts out some of the legwork. The only time that goes sideways is when people ask for things that have nothing to do with what I do. I have no problem with doing new things or pushing the limits of what I do but sometimes the concepts leave you scratching your head. I usually get, “I’m a huge fan of your work. I was wondering if you could do something like (insert artist’s name)?” But 99.999 percent of the time it always goes smooth. In short, it really doesn’t matter as long as the end result is everyone is happy.
Posters are way less stress. It’s just one night. The band doesn’t have to live with that image forever. So there’s a ton more freedom with the posters. Sometimes I try to remind them that with the posters you can really have some fun with images that they really wouldn’t do say for a t-shirt or album cover. I assume that kind of is the bottom line to have fun being in a band and to be creative. I also think the posters are important to remind people that on that certain night something cool happened. I always thought it should be documented and maybe say “on this night we rocked.”
Merch is different cause it based on sales. No band wants a box of shirts that don’t sell. They need to keep their ship rolling on the road so getting an image that will sell to their crowd is real important. As of late there has been a trend of shirts that are 42 colors and look like somebody melted a box of crayons on your chest. I can’t stress the word “trend” here enough. Personally most of the shirts I wear are one or two colors. Three at the most. In most cases simple is the way to go. I kind of want to steer a band to getting merch done that you would wear 20 years from now. Every 10 years I have to get a new Motörhead t-shirt. There’s a reason for that.
Album covers are the thing that I have to put the most thought and time into. Mostly because an album is a document of what that band is trying to do at that time in their career. It’s extremely important to attach something to it visually that will represent what’s goin’ on musically. They have to live with this image forever so I better be on my A-game.
In terms of picking your favorite pieces, how much does it matter which band uses it? Is a work more enjoyable for you if it goes to one of your favorite bands, or is that separate from the art itself as far as you’re concerned?
Almost all of the pieces I’ve made were made for that specific band/client. All the bands are the same to me. Some I get more jacked up to do work for, but at the end of the day your trying to achieve the same thing. Making an image that will represent that band and what they do. I really haven’t been in a position where I was working with a band where I was embarrassed to be a part of it. I really do believe in all the bands I work for otherwise it would be a bad situation.
Is there anyone you’re dying to work with?
John Santos and I have been talking about doing some collaboration stuff. I’d like to do some collab pieces with some of my favorite artists this year that don’t have anything to do with a band.
As far as bands it’s a long list. We could be here all day with all the other bands I would really like to work with. I really liked Goatwhore‘s last record. I really like haarp. I’d like to do something with Neurosis. Maybe a crack at Shrinebuilder. I took to a train up to New York to see them. The show was just amazing. I think they may have played with each other a handful of times. Just devastating.
Then there are bands I just haven’t come up with the right stuff for yet. I’ve been threatening to do some stuff for my good friends in Solace but I just haven’t come up with the right piece. I’ve done some stuff for ASG who are great but I need to get some more done for them.
Do you need to be a fan of the band you’re doing art for, or would you consider giving art to artists you don’t necessarily listen to?
It helps but like I said I really haven’t run into a problem where I really hated doing a piece for someone. I’m pretty open to working with anyone but I don’t see any work coming up with American Idol anytime soon. Once the make-up and dance moves start happening you’ve lost me.
I know there’s a lot of drawing and sketch software out there, but I actually know very little about it. How do you incorporate digital elements into your design work, if you do at all, and do you have a preference between digital sketches and hand drawing?
Almost all my stuff is hand drawn. The only thing I use the computer for is colors and just laying stuff out. I’m hand drawing everything. It’s just more organic. I’m really not a fan of the digital stuff. I’m really not all that tech savvy. I kind of know what I have to do to get what I need done.
I saw the posters for the Metalliance Tour and the Small Stone SXSW showcase and they’re killer. What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on SXSW stuff. I’ll be showing my posters at the Convention Center in Austin with the Flatstock poster convention. There are two books coming out this year dealing with metal/hard rock art that I will be a part of. Plus there is talk of a Mercerrock coffee table book this year. I’m also working on some new gear for my site. Not a lot of logos just cool stuff I would like to have and hopefully other people would think the same. I’ve been talking with Justin Marks who races in the NASCAR truck series about getting some merch done for him. I’m really excited about that project
As far as bands Lamb of God is starting to gear up for a new record so I’ll be working on new sketches for merch for them. It’s been a complete blast working with them. I got some texts that Zoroaster is coming up with new songs so I’ll be working on stuff for them soon. House of Broken Promises, ASG, Iron Tongue, Might Could and a long long list of bands need some swag so I’m always busy. I have a new poster for YOB coming out that I’m pretty pumped about. Plus there are some prints in the works for specific dates of the Metalliance Tour. I also remember there was talk of some work for The Obelisk. Yeah, I didn’t forget. I’m a real fan of the site.Brian Mercer, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia