Equal parts graphic designer, stunt coordinator and performance art choreographer, Storm Thorgerson is the man behind some of the most iconic album art visuals ever. Though particularly well known for his work with Pink Floyd, he’s also created album covers for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel, The Offspring, Audioslave, Anthrax, Muse, Dream Theater and Mars Volta. I spoke to him in Sydney ahead of the opening of an exhibition of his work in Paddington’s Global Gallery.
Would you describe the main body of your work as surrealist?
I don’t think of the work as surreal so much as unreal. Or, no: really real. Weirdly real. Not unreal at all!
Sometimes I think it might be otherworldly or contrary… but it’s very difficult to talk about your own work in these terms. To me they’re just things I think of.
Tell us about your method.
Working for Muse is completely different from working for Mars Volta, but the approach to try to represent the music is very similar. I try to deconstruct the music in order to reconstruct it – I want to find out what obsessions of the musician are reflected in the music. I dig a bit, you know. I wheedle my way in and find more details about what’s behind it.
If you ask half of the artists I work with what a particular song is about, they’ll say, “I have no idea…” But some of them have a very strong idea. It’s their idea that I’m interested in, not mine – not because that’s the only way to interpret the song but because it’s his music and his song.
This issue of interpretation applies to your own work as well, doesn’t it?
Yeah, I got an email from someone the other day who said he’s been studying the cover of Wish You Were Here for 25 years, and he said, “I know what it’s about! The man on fire is the devil!” And well, it’s right for him. I would rather elicit some response than none. My idea of it isn’t necessarily what it is to somebody else, which is fine.
Do you hear music differently to us normal people?
I don’t think so. Normally I’m not working. It’s only when I’m working that I switch on the part of the brain that intends to illustrate it. But otherwise I listen like a punter. I saw Leonard Cohen play the other day, which was extraordinary – I didn’t see any pictures, because I’m not working for him.
Do you think that album art is less important these days than in the days of vinyl?
One of the drawbacks of the digital world is that you don’t have the same experience with packaging. Bands were able to express their attitude by the packaging, and of course you can’t do that so well on the Internet. Album covers may or may not survive, but I think there’ll always be room for ‘visuals’ in music. I might not be doing album covers next year – I might be doing stuff for the Net.
Would your work be different if you had Photoshop in the ’70s?
Well, artists are always affected by the medium they work in. But we don’t use the computer much now so I don’t supposed we’d have used it much then. A computer is like any other tool. We use it occasionally for comping and sometimes to clean things up and remove blemishes.
But have you never been tempted to do it all on a computer? You’ve had to coordinate the flight plan of an inflatable pig, built a house-sized sphere out of American car parts, and lugged 700 hospital beds onto a beach… Seems like tough work.
I think they have a quality that they wouldn’t have if they were done on a computer. It gives me a chance to check it out, see if it works, see if it’s amazing – which it usually is.
If it’s a photograph of a real event it becomes a performance, in a way. Either a set-up scene like In Through The Out Door or Frances the Mute; a sculpture like Stomp 442 or Division Bell; a stunt like Wish You Were Here or Chrome by Catherine Hill; or land art like Elegy. Short of inviting everybody that might buy the record to come to the performance, this is the only thing we can do, you know. You have to make a record of it otherwise no one would see it.
I’d like to talk about some specific album covers, starting with Pink Floyd. Your first gig was for their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets – did it feel like the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
Not at the time. I was interested mostly because it was an opportunity that presented itself. The band didn’t want the record label to do it, so they said, ‘You do it.’
What about the next album, Ummagumma?
[Pronouncing the ‘u’ as in ‘put’] Ummagumma pleased me…
Is that how you pronounce it? I’ve been pronouncing the ‘u’ as in ‘up’…
You can say it that way if you want. But Ummagumma was very important to me because it felt like it worked. It felt like this was something I could do. I don’t know about the band – I think the band liked the cow better actually.
Let’s talk about that cow. You said once that the Atom Heart Mother cover is the opposite of what a cover should be. Do you still think that?
Yeah. It makes me smile. This silly old cow. You know, what’s it doing there? I hoped people would look at it and think, ‘Why a cow? What the fuck has a cow got to do with the price of eggs?’ But it’s got very much to do with Pink Floyd.
Another proposed cover for this album ended up being the cover to Def Leppard’s High ’N’ Dry, is that right?
Yeah, and another one went to the Principal Edwards. If you’ve got a good idea, just because it’s not suitable for one group doesn’t mean it’s not suitable for another. Occasionally you can recycle these things, as all artists do – especially musicians. But we don’t do that very often. Sometimes.
Nick Mason described the prism on Dark Side of the Moon as something of an advertising logo. Do you agree with that?
Not personally. I don’t know what he means particularly. He probably means it’s emblematic. Unlike Wish You Were Here, or Animals, the prism is a singularity. It’s very simple. In a sense it’s very common. It’s an attribute of nature. It doesn’t belong to Pink Floyd or me or anybody else. I think that’s what I was trying to do: capture a quality of light that didn’t say anything too particular. It was also because the late Rick – God bless him – was quite keen to have what he called a ‘cool graphic’… which may be the same as what Nick means when he calls it a logo.
You know, with that rainbow of light, you unwittingly provided the ‘proof’ for all those Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz conspiracy theorists…
Yes, I don’t know why that happened. There are a lot of things written about Pink Floyd that are simply untrue. But people are inclined to weave their own stories in, which is fine.
Animals provided some very Spinal Tap moments, didn’t it?
The pig over the power station was a saga – everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Except the end result is fine. I mean, I think it’s fine: it isn’t even one I liked particularly. It was the band’s idea, not ours. I was kind of hesitant about it, thinking it might be a bit silly. But it worked out all right.
What about A Momentary Lapse Of Reason – when you look at this cover, what do you see?
Well, because that job was very difficult, I tend to remember the job itself. 700 beds. They were all iron and very heavy – and we had to do it twice because it rained. When we finished, and stood at the camera end, it just looked incredible. Totally stupid of course and completely barmy. I just like the idea of the maid struggling to make all these fucking beds that go on for miles. There’s probably a more solid reason why she’s there but I can’t remember it now. I remember she was very attractive.
Tell us about the picture on the promotional posters for this exhibition.
It was for the Cranberries’ Wake Up And Smell The Coffee. I had the idea of someone being invaded by small granules of coffee floating up the stairs from the kitchen and nestling in their nostrils, shouting, “Wake up!” We drew one with the balls the size of tennis balls, but they were too small for my rampant ego, so we made them gym balls. Then we took it outdoors because there were too many to fit in the house, and we did it on a beach so they’d bounce.
What you see is what it looked like. It was more like a performance art piece. We just stood there goggle-eyed as two hundred thousand red balls went down the beach and disappeared out of sight. It looked amazing. You just hope that a photograph will look a bit amazing.
What about that ball of scrap metal, for Anthrax’s Stomp 442?
That was much more like a contemporary sculpture. It was made out of discarded car parts – American car parts, because they’re an American band. But yes, making a sculpture out of rubbish is quite a long tradition. The sculpture was made into a perfect ball – about the size of the house. Very scary to do that job. Quite dangerous.
What happened to the sculpture afterwards? Unceremoniously taken apart?
It was dismantled, yeah. The people at the place where we built it didn’t want it left there.
I’d also like to talk about Led Zeppelin’s Presence. Such an enigmatic cover.
I was amazed they chose that one – because it’s nearly a piece of kitsch. It’s quite a strange cover, even for Zeppelin. I always really liked it, I still do. But I don’t know quite what the band saw.
Well, they loved the concept so much they named the album after it, didn’t they?
They did in fact, you’re right. They felt that somehow or other it was good for them, that it represented their power. One of the things the cover is about is shadows, and how light hits an object. The light and shade of an object tell you its shape – but the object in Presence has no light and shade. So is it an object at all?
It’s just contrary, really. I’ve always liked it for that, but I think the band found something else in it.
What about their In Through The Out Door album?
Well, it was done like a film. We built a set, and halfway through we decided to shoot variations – so there were in fact six different covers. We built a set in the round – not one, not two, not even three, but four walls. It was fantastic. Really, really enjoyable. When we finished it and stood in the middle of it, it was just like being in the middle of New Orleans.
It’s a pretty amazing cover.
Well, I don’t know about that. The cover was very complicated. Because Zeppelin, of course, was complicated.
But there was also that additional concept, of six different covers wrapped in a paper bag – so you didn’t know what cover you had until you unwrapped it at home.
Oh yeah, I like the brown paper bag – that was good. Yeah, I thought it was all fun.
So you’ve said that you have no favourites…
They’re all children. I’m reluctant to prefer one. Sometimes I think they’re all crap, but I think most artists are like that. I think it’s impossible to have a body of work and not be totally narcissistic – or be totally paranoid.
Well, you’ve worked with musicians, so you know what you’re talking about.
I’ve no idea what I’m talking about, Darryn. I just don’t want to be dull – there’s plenty of that in the world at large. I try to be curious and interesting if I can. I’m not interested in being shocking or provocative for the sake of it – I’d rather be a bit odd. Maybe I am a bit odd.
This interview originally appeared on TheVine.com.au.