Adam Burke Interview: Knight, Death and the Devil

You’ve probably seen some of Adam Burke‘s art. Maybe it was an Ice Dragon album cover, or a show poster for any number of bands out of the Portland area and Pacific Northwest — in addition to playing in Fellwoods, Burke has worked with Diesto, Ancient Warlocks, Danava, Crag Dweller, Hobosexual, Sons of Huns, Mystery Ship and many others — and as the poster that went up with the Oberon and Grel tour dates yesterday proves, his reach is beyond regional. Drawing on a visual style influenced by classic fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta and other old pulp sci-fi paperbacks, Burke has come to create works that immediately stand out and are easily identifiable as his own.

Raised Baptist, as he notes, Burke began like a lot of artists to draw early, and discovered music later. The two seem to have become intertwined, however, and more and more parties are taking his works for their own, whether it’s The Golden Grass from Brooklyn asking him to design their logo or the podcast The Soggy Bog of Doom using one of his paintings for its banner. Colors are rich and deep throughout most of Burke‘s watercolors and acrylics, and whether it’s a stark, foreboding landscape or a rainbow-shooting eyeball with a fetus in a teardrop, what seems at first like a familiar stylistic ideal is given a fresh perspective.

Fellwoods released their debut album, Wulfram in 2011 (discussed here), then working under the moniker The Moss, and signed with Svart Records to issue the follow-up Gyromancer EP, initially streaming it early in 2013 before taking  it down ahead of the still-to-come Svart version. In the interview that follows, Burke gives the latest on that as well as some background on the development of his style, his influences as an artist and some of the processes that go into making his pieces, working with bands in and around Portland and some of the differences between creating a visual work and writing songs with Fellwoods.

Complete Q&A and a sampling of Burke‘s art follows the jump. Click any image to enlarge it and please enjoy:

Let’s go back to the start. Which came first for you, music or visual art? What’s your earliest memory of seeing a piece of art and being inspired by it?

Definitely visual art. As a boy I would draw as my main form of entertainment, along with playing in the woods. Heavy music scared me – even the stuff that wasn’t that heavy like Van Halen – probably because I was being told that it was satanic and evil. I remember being drawn to the illustrations in my dinosaur and science books, books about the Middle Ages, and also to the D&D guidebooks and fantasy novel covers at book stores – all from a time when hand illustration was the only way. The first piece of art I remember truly absorbing was Albrecht Dürer’s “Knight, Death and the Devil.” I had been drawing skulls and snakes and horses and knights for years, so to see this imagery in a piece of fine art made me feel a little more legit. I’m still drawing the same stuff 25 years later.

Obviously people like Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell come to mind as influences, but tell me about how music itself influences you when you’re creating a work that will accompany it.

You’re right – fantasy artists are a big influence, I mean they’re just embedded in my psyche as this forbidden fruit from childhood. Now as I illustrate for other bands or my own band, I try to tap into those feelings I had when I saw this imagery. I look at Vallejo now and it’s kinda cornball with lots of glistening loins and kinda lame-looking dragons. Frazetta was so dark and brutal to my little brain. The impression I had back then was shocking and scary and these artists were unimaginably skilled. So I want to impart that passion and intensity that those artists conveyed, but steer clear of the kitsch as much as possible. I think a lot of the bands I work with are looking for that balance. Not to say I don’t enjoy a tasteful space barbarian babe. With music and art – the darkest and most impacting elements are not how insanely heavy or fast it is, or how growly the vocals are or how much blood and T&A there is – it’s a vibe and a mood and what is left to the imagination.

Talk about the development of your style and the use of sci-fi, fantasy and dark-fantasy themes in your work. Where does your interest in portraying those themes come from?

I think I didn’t get to explore this stuff as a kid. I always denied the dark side of myself and the world. I was raised in a very strict Baptist environment, so it all still feels new and fresh and mysterious to me. Letting my imagination just GO still feels new. Also, I’ve always been into science and nature, so I can often incorporate my love of insects or fungus or geology into my work. Nature is goddamned dark. I think including some semi- accurately rendered elements from the natural world helps the work feel a little more serious. For instance, I’m a nut about forest ecology, so I enjoy drawing and painting a scene that might actually exist in a real forest – except for the troll hanging out in there.

Take me through the process of creating a piece. Do you always work the same way? As you’re beginning to sketch out a basic picture, do you already know what the finished product will look like, or does it develop over time?

If I can listen to the music it helps. Also, I think I’m decent at understanding what a client wants. I have always been very aesthetically minded, so if you can describe it well enough, I can try to flesh out what you want. I almost always know what I want to draw or paint before I paint it. I look through books and thousands of photos and other artists’ work to get a bit of inspiration. “How does Rackham draw his pine trees?” “How does John Harris paint a distant planet?” “What does a horse’s nostril really look like?” I try to see what’s actually there, not just what my brain wants something to look like.

How intertwined for you is the visual process with writing songs in Fellwoods? Do you feel like they’re two separate things, or is it all part of one whole expression?

I started doing art again in earnest when we started Fellwoods. It was a period when some difficult life events had blown my mind wide open, and the creativity just burst out. I was no longer so constrained by my fears and over-thinking. I’d gone through some of the worst shit I could imagine, so what if people didn’t like my band? I wanted to do a fantasy album cover for the first Fellwoods record, and gave it a shot.

That was the first one. I didn’t think I could paint before then. Little by little, I’ve begun to understand painting and light and pick up some tricks and disciplines. The progress comes in spurts. Same thing happened with my songwriting. I’m just not held up by all the stylistic boundaries and worries I had when I was younger. We wanted this music to be fun but meaningful, and it’s influenced by things that are stuck in our spirits from childhood.

Are you more comfortable in one medium than another in terms of painting?

Drawing comes naturally to me, so the pieces where I do an ink drawing with watercolor over it are easier. With acrylic paint, I have to think in blobs of color. The world is blobs of color, not outlines. Solid edges and hazy edges, foregrounds and backgrounds. The most difficult thing for me is to SEE what it really looks like.

Are there any bands from Portland or the Pacific Northwest in general that you’re dying to work with that you haven’t yet?

Hmm… I’ve worked with Danava a little, and hope to do some more… I LOVE Christian Mistress and would love to do something for them… Hmm. I’m sure there are others but I’m blanking. I’ll work with almost anyone as long as I have artistic license.

What’s the latest on Fellwoods? Any word on when Svart will put out Gyromancer?

Fellwoods is going strong again after a really tough winter/spring for all of us. Pretty much everyone’s life fell apart in some very big ways. It was nice to be there for each other, and I cannot imagine more wonderful people to be in a band with. We have enough material for our new album and will start that shortly. Cannot wait to share this new stuff. Gyromancer… I dunno, we’ve been slow, not sure where Svart is with it, but I hope to make a push and get it out before we get the new album out there.

Any other closing words or projects you want to mention?

Thanks a lot for taking an interest. Making art for a living is what my 12-year-old self would have dreamed of, and though it has its challenges, I feel very, very fortunate to get the opportunity.

Fellwoods, Nightclaw  from Split with Ice Dragon (2012)

Adam Burke on Thee Facebooks

Fellwoods on Bandcamp

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One Response to “Adam Burke Interview: Knight, Death and the Devil”

  1. panoptikon says:

    As a heavy music/heavy art fan, thanks for posting this! Yours is the only music blog I need to read.

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