I’ve long been a fan of Gary Burden’s work without even knowing it.  I’d venture to guess most of us have been, with such iconic cover designs as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”, The Eagles’ “Desperado”, The Doors’ “Morrison Hotel”, Jackson Browne’s self-titled debut, Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush”, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut record, and more recently My Morning Jacket’s “Evil Urges” and “Circuital” album covers under his belt, just to name a few.  He’s a collaborative artist who has worked closely with other artists like Henry Diltz as well as the musicians whose covers he’s designed.  His collaborative spirit makes him the perfect judge for this year’s Figment Album Cover Design Contest, and we’re thrilled that he agreed to collaborate with us!  We recently spoke to Gary about his experiences as an album cover designer, his process, and what it’s like to have created such iconic album covers.

Figment News:  You began your design career as an architect.  How did you make the transition to designing album covers?

Gary Burden:  I met Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas, and she had just bought a home in Laurel Canyon. She asked me to design and remodel it for her. We liked each other immediately and became good friends. Once she saw and understood my visual orientation she suggested I make the album cover for The Mamas and The Papas. She said; “So what if you’ve never done it before, just do it.” Good advice and the rest, as they say, is history.

FN:  What skills did you learn from the discipline of architecture that you could apply to album cover design?

Gary:  In architecture I learned about creating three dimensional spaces that originated with two dimensional drawings (Plans): Three dimensional spaces I could walk around in, fully formed inside my head long before they existed in physical reality. I applied that knowledge to creating worlds within a two dimensional space inside a 12 inch square and making it live.

FN:  Your work is quite synonymous with the 1960 and 1970 Southern California music scene.  What was that musical community like and how did it influence your work?

Gary:  Yeah! How cool is that? It was a simple case of being in the right place at the right time. I got there because of my love of music and in that moment I discovered a world I had only dreamed of. At that time I was wearing three piece suits and bow ties surrounded by very orderly uptight conservative people. Suddenly my hard edged black and white world bloomed and was filled with a profusion of color and LOVE. Also important to me, for the first time I could imbibe openly in smoke-filled rooms with my friends what I had hidden and done in secret. Smile.

FN:  You began designing covers for artists like The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell and Steppenwolf among others.  What was it like working for such successful acts so early in your career?

Gary:  It was also early in their careers and the beginning of what became the world of rock and roll as a whole. I didn’t weigh these artist’s celebrity or what exactly that meant. I didn’t think that much about stardom. To me they were my friends who were doing wonderful things and making unbelievably great music and they invited me to come along and be a part of that with them. My contribution was making real and tangible, visually, ideas expressed in their music.

FN:  How do you typically work with a client?  Is there a basic process you use to determine what they want or do they entrust you to come up with the design?

Gary:  It is always a collaboration. I listen to them, I listen to the music and that generally informs me what it wants to look like and say, visually. As I often say; I have never made MY album cover. I lend my expertise to a project in service to the artists and the music. It’s always about the music.

FN:  What design tools do you use to create your album cover artwork?

Gary:  I draw continuously. Every day I sketch and am able to look at things on paper in my sketch books before deciding on a solution. That is how I figure things out and try different possible solutions. Coming from the pre-computer/digital era and never having been interested in graphic arts when practicing architectural design I learned by doing. When I started I had to figure things out on my own.  I had good taste but I didn’t know “the rules”. The beauty of that was that I didn’t know what one should never do so nothing was out of the question in solving a design problem. I challenged printers to try things they were never asked to do in more conventional work. I often pissed them off by pushing them into areas where they were uncomfortable but invariably in the end they were happy for the experience and we all learned new things, together. Now-a-days I can try every possibility on the computer before committing to the one best solution. My wife, Jenice Heo, who I work with now is not only a fine art painter but she is a whiz on the computer. I, on the other hand, am pretty much an analog person. Back in the day there were several days lag time between each step of creating a piece of art and involved other people to make prints, retouch etc. and I waited for each step to unfold before I could make my final decisions and come up with the best solution to any design problem. In many ways it was cooler then because it was very hands on work.

FN:  How much interaction do you have with the musicians you work with on an album cover design?

Gary:  A lot. As I said, I haven’t ever made my own album cover. I make their album covers, so I like them to participate every step of the way to the solution. I want them to love and embrace what is on their album cover. That artwork is speaking for them to the audience often before they hear a note of the music. Jackson Browne said the album cover is like an American Indian’s war shield with his personal art on it that came to him in a vision. A power object.

FN:  You also collaborated for many years with photographer Henry Diltz, and continue to collaborate with other artists, like Matthew Hollings, to bring your cover designs to life.  What do you look for in a collaborator, and what is the process of finding the right collaborator like?

Gary:  I have a very clear vision that I have already figured out every way from Sunday before a photo shoot is set up. Unlike most projects where a photographer is a big part of providing props, locations and wardrobe for the shoot I have always done all of that myself. Certainly things happen once the camera is involved but for the most part the final result is much like what was in my head and in my sketch book long before the photo shoot. The main reason I worked with Henry and to some extent other photographers to take the actual photograph is because I was intimidated by the camera itself. I didn’t trust myself to take the pictures because what if I had the wrong exposure or forgot to put film in the camera or whatever and spent the entire day on location with no results to show for it! Nightmare! It has been the source of some frustration to me because I had to rely on a third party to capture what I was after. I did set up the location, subject etc and composed the image in the camera before handing it over to the photographer to push the button but it wasn’t like actually seeing the moment myself through the lens and firing the shot at just the moment when it felt perfect.

My friend Conor Oberst insisted that I take the pictures myself when we made a cover together in Mexico. I rented a camera and headed off to be a photographer with great reservations and a real fear of failure. The good news for me was that cameras nowadays are for the most part automatic and nearly fool proof. That photo shoot was so successful that I immediately went out and bought the same exact camera equipment I had rented. More and more I like taking the pictures myself. It gives me that last bit of control to get exactly what was in my head onto film. I love the photos I took of Jerry Lee Lewis where it was all me. BTW I am a committed fan of film not digital images. I believe there is something missing in a digital image that always lives on the film run through a camera. It’s like my love of music recorded analog and released on vinyl as opposed to digital music. Something is lost in the compression typical of digital music. That something which is the intangible “feel” and emotion of music. Neil Young says, and I believe as well; “Vinyl records sound too good to download.”

FN:  Speaking of Neil Young, you’ve had a working relationship with Neil for over 40 years.  How did that relationship begin and how have you maintained it for so long?

Gary:  I first met Neil at Cass’s house when he had his 1948 Buick hearse parked in her driveway and I was just getting started in my new life as an art director. Long before that I used to go and see Buffalo Springfield at the Whiskey when they were the house band. We hit it off immediately but it was several years before he asked me to make a cover for him. That was “AFTER THE GOLD RUSH” and it was a great fulfilling experience. I learned a great deal about the meaning of collaboration from working with him and that has never changed in the forty five plus years we have been working together.  He is a great artist, a complete artist on every level. I’d say he is one of the few real geniuses I have ever known. He also lives in the same places out in the ethers that I do and we have deep cosmic fun together. He is a very hilarious person along with being a deadly serious artist who will never let any obstacle stand in the way of him realizing his vision. He’s my friend. I bought my first home from him when he sold me his Topanga house (For exactly what he had paid for it!), he was our best man when my wife Jenice and I got married in our back yard in Malibu to the tunes of “SUCH A WOMAN”. I love him dearly and I am a better artist and person for knowing him.

FN:  Collaborating can be tricky business over many years, but it seems to have only solidified your friendship.  Do you and Neil ever clash over ideas?  And how do you deal with it when it happens?

Gary:  I wouldn’t say “clash” because as I have said I don’t make MY album cover I am there to help him make HIS album cover. Holding on to “my” idea would be a dead end street and fortunately I continuously learn from him. Some times I don’t immediately “get” what he is after but together we sort it out and we have great respect and patience with each other. In the end we continue to blow each others minds which is a great basis for collaboration and friendship.

FN:  Do you collaborate with Neil and other musician’s in-person or do you use the internet to send ideas back and forth?

Gary:  There is nothing like sitting in a smoke-filled room together and looking one another in the eye.

FN:  So you and Neil are eye-to-eye in a smoke filled room, can you take us through the process you two go through to create an album cover? “Psychedelic Pill” for example?

Gary:  The “Smoke Filled Room” was a metaphor.  To explain in words the step-by-step process is difficult, but I’ll take a stab.  It happens over a period of time and many telephone exchanges, and drawing from me, and mock-ups from Jenice.  It starts with Neil having a vision that he shares with me.  That inspires lots of ideas that I work on in drawings, lots of drawings which I edit and hone to a fine point.  Then Jenice and I work together on the computer shaping it further.  Then turn that back into hand made artifacts that we share with Neil.  It’s like sculpture wherein you have a block of stone which you carve into and remove everything that isn’t part of the solution.  Each and every cover we make is different but our process is basically the same.

In the case of “Psychedelic Pill”, Neil wanted it to be a pill.  We took that as our basic mandate.  First step was to find illustrators who could render a super realistic pill.  We went to medical illustrators and finally found a team who could do what was needed.  While the pill itself was being rendered we decided that we would put the pill in space, so we found beautiful deep space images and laid that out, then because of the nature of the package itself, three disc package, we chose different angles of the pill for each panel, and decided the order in which you would see the pill coming towards you.  It took many passes but finally we had a pill that was everything we wanted so we put it where we wanted it in the background and made a mock-up which we shared with Neil.  In the meantime, I found this amazing type font created in the ninth century on some religious tracts.  I modified that while Jenice built the words letter by letter, then I hand colored each letter one by one, and Jenice assembled the art and that was sent to Neil for his approval.  We had found the type of paper we wanted to use and finalized the package itself, then worked with our printer to prepare all of the pieces.  Then we spent many days on press getting everything just right;  the color of the pill, the background colors, and the colorful type.  Just like that, there was a finished cover that started with Neil saying he was seeing a pill, a psychedelic pill.  We insisted that we not go back to the psychedelia of days gone by but psychedelic for the Twenty-First Century.  Lots of words, do you get the picture?

FN:  I do.  Incredible.  You won a Grammy for your work with Neil on his 2009 box set “Archives Vol. 1”.  How did it feel to be recognized for your work together?

Gary:  I had been nominated I believe three times before winning the Grammy. How perfect it was to win with my wife and Neil. All three of us. It was very sweet and it was Neil’s first ever Grammy win! That is mind blowing. I had lost out enough times to have taken refuge in thinking that because I was not a part of the Grammy “clique” I would never win one and Neil had become known as a “Grammy grouch” because he had never won either and he was vocal about his disdain for the Grammys. That night, after the win, we both became big supporters of the Grammy award. Neil won a Grammy the next year for his music.

FN:  You continue to work with new artists like My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Monsters of Folk.  How does working with artist now differ from your earlier work?

Gary:  I cherish being an old dog continuously looking for new tricks to do. This younger, next generation, of singer/songwriters is coming from exactly the same place as the first generation of artists I worked with and it is like deja vu all over again. I continue to learn from my new brothers like Conor Oberst and Jim James and am honored that they chose me and that we share a lot of good times together professionally and personally. I am blessed on so many levels that I wouldn’t know where to begin giving thanks specifically. Suffice it to say “Thanks” for all of the gifts I have been given in my life and for the friends and collaboraters who have given me this good life and so much love.

FN:  One last question about collaboration.  When you worked on The Eagles debut record did you really take the band out in the desert, have them all take peyote, and then shoot the back cover shot around a fire as Glenn Frey asserts in the recent “History Of The Eagles” documentary?

Gary:  Yes!  I hasten to add; no one was hog tied and force fed anything.  It is my belief that if you are in the desert you should be in the desert.  It was a mutual agreement and what came of that commitment has certainly served the band well.  No?

FN:  With music moving to the digital medium, do you think there is still a place for album cover art?

Gary:  OMG YES! I meet many young people who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in the era when I started and haven’t always known album cover art but invariably they are drawn to the artwork that can come with music and they tell me they feel that they missed out on something important. I agree that they did and work hard to make sure they get an opportunity to experience visuals with their music. We actually still make vinyl packages for the artists we work with. Proof that something is missing that people still want to have a piece of is that vinyl is the only segment of the music business that is growing. People who had great cover art miss the “feeling” generated by listening to music on vinyl, pops and hisses and all. They miss holding the album cover in your hands while listening to the music and they seek that out whenever they can. Today we do little tiny images for digital releases. I’ve gone from creating in three dimensions making physical structures that you could walk around in and live in to a twelve inch two dimensional square to a five inch two dimensional square to itsy bitsy digital images. Has something been lost in all of those transitions? I think yes!

FN:  What role do the record companies play in your work?

Gary:  Not much. I must say that I have always had the good fortune to work with artists who were the masters of their own fate and where the companies played a very limited role. So on that level not much has changed for me. I believe that this period of time today where record labels are fast fading from view has opened many very rich opportunities for individuals and artists wherein they can have a bigger role in shaping their own destiny.

FN:  But going back to The Eagles, is it true that you designed The Eagles self titled album cover to fold out to a poster, but David Geffen thought it cost too much so he had it glued together?

Gary:  Yes!  Glued it shut so the inside spread was upside down when you opened the cover.  We shot both the front and back covers and used the images for all of the advertising and marketing.

FN:  In addition to designing album covers you’ve also worked in a number of other visual mediums, including creating stage designs for a number of bands, directing music videos, producing and appearing  in a documentary “Under The Covers” on your album cover art, and conceptualizing and co-producing the 13-hour Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Show that aired on HBO and ABC-TV.  Has working in these other visual mediums helped or influenced at all your work on album covers?

Gary:  I have always believed that an artist can shape any medium they choose to work in and I love having the opportunity to expand my horizons and to tell stories in lots of different ways and mediums. I am a visualist and a story teller. I take pride in the fact that even though they are increasingly smaller two dimensional canvases I can tell a story with what I create. I also love having the opportunity to work larger and include extended time and dimension to my work. Over the years I have longed for the opportunity to make movies and to that end along the way I have acquired various literary properties to base motion pictures on. Finally, that is beginning to pay off and this year I will have two feature films in production; one is Edward Abbey’s THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG (1975) which I have had under option since early 1989. That film will be directed by the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 & 4) which is a story about the environment we all live in that needs to be told. The world needs to know this story which will play a huge role in saving what is left of the environment. It will be a very wonderful movie that will both inform and entertain. The second film is a novel I have loved for more than sixty years and always wanted to bring to the screen; Lynd Ward’s GODS’ MAN (1929) which is a “novel without words” telling a very large and important story in 150 wood cuts. No words. It is a story based on the tale of Faust and what it means to sell yourself to the devil for material gain and power. Like Robert Johnson with his guitar at the crossroads. It puts a face on and shows the cost of greed. Eventually you must give the Devil his due.

FN:  Who are some of the album cover designers whose work you admire?

Gary:  There are many, so lest I forget to include anyone who’s work I admire and learn from continuously suffice it to say “Many”.

FN:  You’ve created some iconic album covers over the years.  What do you think makes an album cover iconic?  What do you look for in an album cover design?

Gary:  Telling the truth visually and good luck helps in cover art having a sustained life. I am attracted to art that challenges and informs at the same time. Timing plays a role as well because if you are in tune with the moment your visuals will resonate forever. BTW my personal favorite of all the covers I have made is Neil’s “ON THE BEACH.”

FN:  What advice would you give to someone interested in designing album covers and other artwork for bands?

Gary:  Follow your heart, surrender to the music, embrace collaboration and bring everything you have and can find to the table. Tell the truth and have a good time. Having a good time in doing the work even when the task at hand is deadly serious is evident in what one produces. I believe the audience perceives that and appreciates it.

FN:  Is their a band, current or past, that you always wanted to work with but never got the chance?

Gary:  The Beatles certainly, though I did have the good fortune to work with Paul and Linda McCartney on a book I art directed for them. In all of the years I have been making art for music I have always operated on the belief that doing good work will lead to other opportunities to do more good work. I never promoted myself or had a representative out there selling me to the world at large so I reckon there are plenty of opportunities left unclaimed by me and there are plenty of artists I would love to collaborate with before I hit the dead end on this road of life. To that end I have recently hired a representative and I am going to be seeking out those artists whose music touches me to offer my services. I believe it ain’t over until it’s over so I am forging ahead and thinking of myself as an old dog continuously in search of new tricks to do. Stay tuned.

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Find out more about Gary Burden:

View Gary’s Discography

Watch clips from “Under The Covers – A Magical Journey:  Rock N’ Roll in LA in the 60’s – 70’s”

Read Gary’s Stories About Some of His Work

 

2 Responses to “Embrace Collaboration: A Conversation with Gary Burden”

  1. frizbee Says:

    If I could applaud, I would. This was an amazing interview. This guy gets it. Everything he said on the subject of cover design was so right on the money. And I love what Jackson Browne said about an album cover being like an Indian warrior’s shield. That is a brilliant metaphor. Oh, to pick Gary’s brain… And I have GOT to get Under The Covers!

  2. theHoseman Says:

    Eric, this is quite possibly your best interview yet. What an enjoyable read and Gary is such an engaging guest! We Figmenteers are incredibly lucky to have him judge this years cintest!

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