The comic book influence that Southern Californian artist Sean “Skillit” McEleny mentions in discussing his origins as a designer is readily apparent in his work. Whether it’s a giant bubbling worm creature on a poster for Stone Axe and All Time High or a team of three battleships taking on a giant robot in the middle of the ocean — as on the cover of Admiral Browning‘s latest (and recently-reviewed) album, Battle Stations — his figures and landscapes seem to be perpetually in motion.
Part of that has to be McEleny‘s use of bright, vivid colors. Where most think of heavy music as something dark, McEleny has tuned directly into the sweetness of tonality in desert rock and — as one can see in his series of posters for “Desert Rock at the IPAC” at the Indio Performing Arts Center — has managed to build an aesthetic that’s as much bathed in sunshine as it is held in check by thick borderlines.
As McEleny has aligned himself in recent years with the likes of Fatso Jetson, Dali’s Llama, House of Broken Promises and — perhaps most pivotally — Yawning Man, his posters and album covers have helped shape the visual concepts of desert rock, but he also maintains touch with his roots on the East Coast in his work for the aforementioned Admiral Browning, as well as several poster designs for fests and shows held in Maryland, near his former home in Washington D.C. Whoever is calling on his services, though, he maintains a consistent style while also serving the needs of bands and venues as only someone truly passionate about the music can.
In the conversation that follows, McEleny talks about growing into his own as an artist, his use of color, his deep-felt appreciation for the desert scene, and much, much more. Included with the Q&A are poster and album art images. As always, click on any to enlarge.
Please enjoy the interview after the jump.
I got into drawing probably the most people do: as a kid and just keeping with it. I was into the skateboard art that was on the decks and board my friends and I had especially Jim Phillips and Santa Cruz although I didn’t know who that was at the time until a friend pointed that out to me a few years ago. As I grew up I got into comics and artists like [Kevin] Eastman and [Peter] Laird, Todd McFarlane, Sam Keith, Barry Windsor Smith and so on. Later I started getting into Alex Grey, M.C. Escher and some psychedelic stuff.
I started working on band stuff by doing album layout and flyers/posters for my old band in the D.C. area. I would use other peoples art because I was lazy and unconfident in my own but eventually Scott Verrastro of Kohoutek asked me to do some original art for a release he was putting out. That got the ball rolling and Admiral Browning and others came asking for original posters. I owe a lot to them for kicking me in the ass at that point. Moving to L.A. and joining the Hellfire Red art collective was a great opportunity and opened a lot of doors out here.
Where did the name Skillit come from?
It was given to me by a friend in college for our drinking frat/gang. I never got a full explanation to its meaning but it was originally $-Kill-It then shortened to $killit and now just Skillit. Maybe it was because I was always up to something or cooking my food on a skillet. Not sure, but it stuck.
Talk about developing your style. Did you go to art school or receive any formal training, or are you self-taught? How did you break into doing design work professionally?
I would say I learned about the fundamentals of art, like lighting, color theory and composition well in classes but didn’t put it into what I’m doing now until recently on my own. I was really into art throughout public school but hit a wall after getting to art college. I was disillusioned with something about college and professional art in general and spent a lot of time slacking instead of doing what I should have been: paying attention in class, working on my art outside of class and networking. I coasted and my style developed after college by taking more classes, working at print shops and learning more about computer art programs.
With Photoshop, I was able to merge the black and white/pen and ink style and colorful acrylic paint style I had been doing separately before into one style. I figured out a few ways to keep the fine lines and add saturated colors I could change at any time like in Illustrator or vector programs. I was never very confident in my color usage, giving it some flexibility this way allowed me to learn hands-on much quicker.
I broke into what I’m doing now (which I liked to think of as “semi-pro” with a day job still going) through persistence and making sure I’m visible when I complete a project. I started off doing a bunch of jobs for free or cheap to get my name out there. I try to make new contacts and show my face at shows and events too.
Tell me about moving out west. Was music a part of that? How have you seen desert rock grow since you got to California?
I was looking at moving to New York to be near my girlfriend but was dragging my feet. Around that time she was offered a job in Los Angeles, so I decided to move out with her. I was born in Palm Springs but moved on my first birthday. My dad was raised in L.A. and Long Beach and we’d visit the area a lot to see family AND friends so I had a semi-understanding of SoCal. The music scene and weather were also more to my liking. I remember first hearing Kyuss, earthlings? and Fatso Jetson and thinking, No way is this music is from that place I was born! Living near D.C. has its benefits with so many good bands coming from there, but so many touring bands skip over it and the local media doesn’t take anything heavy seriously. I was growing tired of that and since moving to L.A., I’ve seen so many great bands I’ve never thought I’d see live it’s ridiculous. I’m hoping they stop touring and playing reunion shows soon so I can save some money!
I don’t know if I’ve seen the desert rock grow or if my understanding of it has grown, it’s hard to tell. I’ve certainly got more of a glimpse inside into the history and the current state of the scene in the low desert and I can say I think it’s vital and original as anywhere else, probably more so. In L.A., desert rock is still an enigma and very underground, the sludge, doom and psych-influenced scene is growing though, and pretty visible.
Can you discuss your use of color? Heavy music is often thought of as being dark, but so much of your work is based around bright shades.
This probably comes from all those childhood influences mixed with my current techniques and moving to Southern California. Using Photoshop to change color at any part of the process made me be able to push the color as far as I want. Moving to L.A. and seeing bright fresh colors on every other building with the Mexican/Hispanic influence brought that out more, plus the sun never hurts to make things brighter. Working at a print shop has helped me see the direct effects of mixing CMYK inks and pushing that in Photoshop. Instead of thinking to myself that I should add more cobalt blue to my shadows to make them recede as in a painting I just add more cyan and magenta, in some cases I can see the printed results quickly which helps.
I’m really into current underground heavy rock artists. There’s so many talented people, it’s amazing and I’m not sure where or how I fit in, but that’s cool with me. I think of myself as an illustrator that loves heavy rock so I’m applying what I already do to it and I’m more than happy I’ve found some bands that want to use it.
You seem to have a special relationship with the music of Yawning Man and in particular Gary Arce. Is there something particular about their music that appeals to you, and if so, what? How has your relationship with the band affected you as an artist?
Yawning Man is “it” and Gary Arce’s playing always puts me in a great state of mind, add Mario Lalli on bass behind that and it’s just too good. There’s something about the heavy syncopated drums, the driving bass lines and Gary’s guitar that frees up my mind to relax and focus when I have to. I don’t think there’s anything else out there like them. I could describe it with words but it might be too much.
I got into them on the East Coast before Rock Formations came out, I think. A buddy of mine from Richmond named Tubevision (www.tubevision.com) recorded a show in San Francisco while out there on business and made me a copy. I played that show over and over just listening to the audio while doing art. It had a real impact on me. Working with them has probably affected me by making me take my art a little more seriously. I’m a big fan and they have a large following, so I had to do it right. I really want to nail the sound with the art when I can, so I think I pushed my color palette farther on things for them. I’m bummed I had to turn down a project for their tour recently as I was finishing the Battle Stations art [for Admiral Browning], but I talked to Gary and he has another project he has me in mind for coming up.
Where did the concept for the art for Admiral Browning’s Battle Stations come from? How closely did you work with the band on that design?
The initial concept and story aspect of it was theirs, the meaning was personal to them and people but also as a band. Actually, they had a different title and theme earlier but rearranged the songs and came up with a leaner, meaner version and the album name to go with it. We had a few conference calls to flesh it out and I contributed my thoughts which helped steer them in some layout and packaging directions, but besides a few flourishes like the helmet on the CD itself, the impetus was all them. The look and feel was up to me though, which was challenging. It was the first time I had drawn a robot, the sea and ships in a serious project so I took my time making sure I got it all right. There’s a bunch of progress pics and some more details on all of this on my blog, if you’re curious.
Do you have a preference between doing CD art or posters?
Not really, both have pros and cons. Packaging you can get more detailed and the deadlines are longer. Posters you can have more freedom over the subject matter and bang ‘em out quicker. I want to silkscreen more posters in the future, so that will change my style a bit for them, but I’ll still be doing four-color process work for packaging like I do now.
How did you get involved with Desert Rock at the IPAC, and can you talk about what it is for anyone who might not be familiar?
Mario Lalli called me saying he was brought into the game late as an organizer and they needed a poster quick and monthly. I’m a fan of his music and respect how he is still involved in promoting music so I was down. The IPAC shows were a series of six shows in Indio at a larger performance space called the Indio Performing Arts Center. I think they had a chunk of time available in the winter months and wanted to get some use of it so they put on a monthly showcase of local bands that varied from punk, pop, desert rock and reggae. Towards the end of the run the shows got pretty big and fun with movies showing and three bands performing at the same time in the space. I did posters for five of them and was able to make it out to three. I’m really glad I could get out there to see some shows. I saw some great bands out there!
Anyone you’re dying to work with you haven’t yet?
I hear the Auto Modown record is done and will be released in the future, hoping I can do something for them. From what I’ve hard online and seen in-person, they are the real deal. I had to turn down some work for Across Tundras this year, which was a bummer. I dig them a lot and hope I can make it up in the future. If I had to aim really high I’d say anything Wino does. His music got me into stoner or heavy rock and I’ve been into everything he does.
What’s next? Any new projects in the works or other closing words you want to mention?
Working on a side project for Zach [Huskey] of Dali’s Llama called Ogressa. It’s got Trent [Ramseyer] of Whores of Tijuana on vocals and Scott Reeder playing bass on a few songs. The theme is a female ogre and her troubles. All I can say is what Zach has been saying about it: HEAVY. I’m using the same techniques but mixing up the style with more line work and coloring that’s darker and a bit messier: like painting or using colored pencils in Photoshop. It looks pretty cool up close on the screen so far. After that I’ve got a couple more packaging jobs and hopefully a poster for an end of summer show. So far 2011’s been pretty tough with some unexpected distractions popping up, but they’re now fading and I think I’ll be able to get more work out in the second half.California, Sean McEleny, Skillit