Interview with Artist David V. D’Andrea: Drawing the Keylines

Framed and hung up around the 013 venue at this year’s Roadburn festival, the artwork of David V. D’Andrea is among some of the most distinctive surrounding heavy music today. His use of deep tones, rich colors and transparency in line-drawn images stands him out among his peers, and his dedication to and connection with music is essential to understanding his work.

The Roadburn series was just the latest installment in a distinguished list of contributions. Cutting his teeth working with Sleep and the label Life is Abuse in the Bay Area in the ’90s, D’Andrea — since relocated to Portland, Oregon — has done poster and album designs in just the last several years for Angel Witch, Shrinebuilder, Wino, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and many others. Perhaps most recognizable of all, though, are D’Andrea‘s designs for Om.

Om bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros (also formerly and once again of Sleep) is quoted as saying of D’Andrea that his “work is his spiritual path,” and looking long at D’Andrea‘s visual creations, the time, effort and passion that are poured into making them is as clear to see as are the birds, tall grasses and spiritually or naturally-themed figures that comprise the images themselves. It’s not just about being a fan or taking inspiration from a band’s songs, it’s being able to absorb something subconsciously as well and being able to translate that in a medium.

It was the clarity of vision in D’Andrea‘s pieces that led me to approach him at Roadburn and ask if he’d allow me to send him some questions for an interview for this site, and I was thrilled when he was up for it. Aside from wanting to know his origins as an artist, the hope was to get a sense of his connection to music and where that passion comes from, as well as finding out more about how the actual work is done. D’Andrea was honest and open, and with a perspective as unique as his visuals, discussed what went into his choosing the bands he wanted to work with for the 013 series, his relationship with Om, and much more.

Please note: I’ve made a point to include as much artwork as possible with the interview. Click on any image (such as that above) to enlarge it and get a more detailed look.

The complete Q&A is after the jump. Enjoy.

When did you first start drawing? Was there anything particular that inspired you, and at what point did you know you wanted to do it as a career?

I’ve been drawing since I can first remember. My earliest inspiration was Mad Magazine, Basil Wolverton, ‘70s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, etc. Pretty standard late-‘70s/early-‘80s pop culture.

My father’s LP collection was an important influence. It was really the only collection of art in the house. I clearly remember, as a child, making the connection between the album cover and music contained within.

When I discovered skateboarding and punk, I can’t exactly say that I knew illustration would be my career, but I definitely developed a sense of place and purpose in the world. I obsessed over the work of Pushead, Vernon Courtland Johnson, Jeff Nelson and others.

I started making photocopied zines and flyers, mostly centered around skating/bmx, art, and music. Thinking back, this was really important because it enabled me to be a part of this worldwide mailorder/trading circuit. For a 14-year-old kid stuck in a small Connecticut town, the prospect of coming home from school to a mailbox full of ‘zines gave me a crucial sense of the rest of the world.

After high school, when I was ready to get out of there, I left with a backpack, sketchbook, and a Cometbus ‘zine in my back pocket! Sounds cliché, but it’s true.

The path to my “career” has had its twists and turns, and I have no set idea of where I’ll be in a few years. I like to remain open and fluid in my outlook. Regardless of where I’m headed, I certainly am thankful that my foundational years happened as they did. It has been a natural progression, a wheel that will keep on spinning.

Describe how you became involved in the Oakland music scene in the early ‘90s. What was your first album cover?

I moved to Oakland in 1994 or so. The punk/metal scene was thriving. As the kid who spent hours at Kinko’s, obsessively slaving over cut-and-paste ‘zines, I immediately knew what I had to offer up to the scene.

My very first “published” piece was an album insert for the band Fields of Shit. They were a short-lived Oakland band that really personified the scene at the time. The album was a 10” on the Life Is Abuse label.

I went on to do some more work with Life is Abuse, which eventually morphed into Monolith Press. Monolith, until about six months ago, was my home base and the publisher of a lot of my biggest posters.

Around 1998-’99, High on Fire started playing their earliest shows. They played warehouses, back yards, living rooms, etc. Being a huge Sleep fan, I jumped at the opportunity to make High on Fire flyers for the neighborhood. Inevitably, we all came together and became good friends.

I did the first shirt with the red and white double-headed eagle. I became their merch guy and we toured the US and Europe with their three-song demo and that first t-shirt.

The High on Fire stuff was a huge stepping stone for me. I feel like I haven’t looked back since!

A style obviously develops over time, but did you always have some sense of what you wanted your work to bring out emotionally? How much of your artistic development has been a conscious process?

When you work with a band, there’s all this emotion, words and sound already on the table. The artwork has a launching-off point. The album cover ideally sets the mindscape for an album. My goal is to do it with grace and originality, and to give a sense that I am genuinely into the music.

My love for eternal symbols comes out in much of my work. The death’s head as a memento mori, birds as transcendence of the spirit, the cross as earth-bound man, etc. All these symbols have been done over and over through time… I love the tradition and universality of symbols.

I’m conscious of my development, of course. I try to know my place within the big picture, the history of illustration, and not be mired down in contemporary times. Hopefully my work will develop until my last day here.

What do you look for in terms of inspiration, say, when working with a band on a poster? Do you have a particular method of adapting your style to theirs, or does it all depend on the artist, the time, etc.?

Every job is so different. I try to keep my process fluid. I always begin by spending some time with the recordings, brainstorming, and coming up with what I think would be the ideal visual. Then there’s a back and forth with ideas and sketches, so the image usually changes a bit from my initial concept. It’s a traditional “commercial art” process that I try to infuse with organic inspiration.

Do you have a philosophy as regards color? There are so many strong contrasts in your work between colors, so many deep tones and yet, still transparent spaces. What does color or its absence mean to you?

I really struggle with color. I tend to stick to earth tones, which I sometimes feel is the easy way out. It’s really tricky.

I’ve completely ruined good blackline drawings by adding color! I look at the ‘60s psychedelic masters and really admire the ones who had an incredible grasp on color. Victor Moscoso is the best example. He wasn’t afraid to vibrate colors that made your eyes fall out. I admire that.

Most of my palette is from classic Indian/Eastern art. I love the organic colors of Kalighat painting, as an example.

I’m still learning.

What went into your choice of bands to work with for your Roadburn series this year? There were so many beautiful pieces. Was continuity between them (other than the design of the lettering) a consideration, or did each come from a different inspiration?

It was a great challenge! I really tried to keep a sort of continuity throughout the series, aside from the obvious fonts. Thanks for noticing! It was like illustrating a novel or something, except that I was working with eight separate bands and the festival organizers all at once.

I personally chose the bands and did as many as I could, which turned out to be eight. I worked with each one, asking for a bit of art direction and eventual approval of sketches.

There were so many bands that I would’ve liked to work with. My top choices were a combination of my favorites and the practicality of the agreement. The series was a sort of celebration of the festival and it went well. Everybody was so supportive! It will stand as one of the biggest moments of my career.

Is there a different mindset at play for you in doing poster and album art?

Well, the method of reproduction is very different. This is usually the biggest difference.

A screen-printed poster calls for a “keyline” drawing with colors added separately later. With album packaging almost anything goes. It’s usually reproduced digitally, so I can use ink, paint, collage, etc., freely.

Also, album packaging has different areas within the template, so it might call for additional images. The general idea is usually a cover image and three or four vignettes to use for the back cover, interior, etc.

It’s a bit more of an undertaking. Both types of project have their advantages and limitations for me personally.

Do you have a special affinity for working with Om and in particular Al Cisneros? I’ve seen his quote that your work is your spiritual path in more than a few places, and the same could probably be said of him. Do you feel a particular connection to his work?

Yes, absolutely. When Om started playing shows I just knew that was it. I still love Sleep, early High on Fire rules, but Om is the aural personification of everything I want my artwork to be.

I’ve been so down with every step of their evolution: the advent of Emil [Amos, who replaced drummer Chris Hakius], the inclusion of Rob [Lowe, also of Lichens]… and whatever the future holds. To me, they are so progressive, and I mean spiritually, musically, everything.

For instance, in the early days of Om, they did those two San Francisco shows with Current 93. I mean, there was such a weird backlash amongst some of the crowd… but only some. Some of us saw that it made total sense, that both bands were somehow vibrating on the same plane and it was beautiful. I was ecstatic about the previously unfathomable congruence of energy contained in one room.

Om’s connections with Six Organs of Admittance, Daniel Higgs, Lichens… it’s an invisible cord of artistic energy which I feel somehow tethered to. This is really important to me. As with these artists, I hope that my artwork embodies progressive thought and non-genre.

Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?

I really like White Hills. Again, not only do I love their work, but I can tell that they are very ambitious and have the skill to execute their vision. We did a Roadburn poster and a t-shirt, but I look forward to more opportunities.

I did a poster for an Astra show a few year back, but they are also one of my favorites. There’s no lack of bands that I’m inspired by. In truth, I hope to collaborate with more authors, painters, printers, movie writers.

Kind of a hokey question, I know, but if you could have designed the cover for any album, what would it have been?

King Crimson, In the Wake of Poseidon? Maybe Comus, First Utterance.

It’s only a hokey question because over time the visuals become the album, and that’s the key. All of those albums have perfect artwork in my opinion.

Even though I listen to and collect ‘60s/’70s stuff, I’m happy to be working in contemporary times. We have so many resources and references to build upon.

What’s in the works next?

Sleep shows in June and Om stuff early next year. I’m concentrating on my next big move, which might mean a more public storefront for my studio in Portland, Oregon.

I’m working with Broken Press in Seattle a lot. We’re getting into the idea of printing some non-band based work and employing some different methods like letterpress, etc.

David V. D’Andrea’s website

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One Response to “Interview with Artist David V. D’Andrea: Drawing the Keylines”

  1. greenskeeper says:

    Iommi Sphinx!!

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