William Schaff is, for lack of a better way of saying it, a damn good artist.  His cover art for bands may be what he’s best known for, but paintings, etchings, collages and embroidery are all part of his oevre (there’s that word again) and when he’s not creating visual art he’s creating aural art as the drummer in the Providence-based marching band What Cheer? Brigade.

When we asked William why he agreed to judge our Figment Album Cover Design Contest his answer was very telling, “I was flattered and honored you would think of me and my work for such a task. I hope to be able to put what eye I have towards the efforts of others. To share my joy and knowledge of art with those who are sharing the same. I am just a voice, not a judge. A fellow artist, being asked to give my thoughts on other artists’ efforts. I look forward to it.”

It’s his lack of pretense that makes William so special, and made our talk with him about his art so revealing.

Figment News:  You’re an artist and a musician. Do you think being a member of several bands has informed your art?

William Schaff:  Sure, because music influences my art. It’s an amazing thing, music. I have found that it has taken me to places, and kept me grounded in a way nothing else has. Therefore getting to be a part of creating and perpetuating such an amazing things as gathered sound….well that keeps me hopeful. When I am hopeful, I make art.

FN:  How did you get started in album cover design?

WS:  Someone asked me to make art for their record. I know it’s not exciting to say it like that, but that’s how it came about. I guess the first “job” you could say I had was when I was a little kid. My mom would ask me to make covers for the mix tapes she made. She would pay me a quarter for doing each cover. that said, I was often asking her if she needed a mix cover done. I started my own business and called it “cover up”. Witty, yes?

FN:  You’ve had a long and well publicized relationship designing album covers for the band Okkervil River. How did that relationship begin and is it hard being identified so closely with one band’s visual identity?

WS:  It started partly because of the similarity of our names. [editor’s note:  Okkervil River’s lead singer & songwriter is name Will Sheff]  Long story short, a mutual friend introduced us, we started talking music,. Will asked if I wanted to do the artwork for their upcoming release on Jagjaguwar. I guess the only thing that may be considered “hard” about it is folks thinking that because of all these years I’ve done work for Okkervil, I am out of their price range ( I do keep my prices competitive and on the cheaper side), or that I make a lot of money from it, thus I can do charity work for them. Both ends are troublesome for me. The former loses me work without folk even approaching me, the latter has people approaching me and getting upset when I say Ineed “x” amount to do the job. They seem to feel I must be living comfortably enough that I can help a new band out for free.

FN:  How do you work with Okkervil River? Is it a collaborative relationship or do they simply leave you to create a cover image?

WS:  It is more collaborative than most other peoples’ projects. I don’t know if this is because of how long we have worked together, or just because of the relationship Will and I have cultivated. Will is really good about providing alot of ideas, lyrics and thoughts to me when we’ve worked on new projects. Ultimately, the images are what come from my head, but to say Will’s influence is not in there would be incorrect. In some form or fashion, they are very much in there.

FN:  You’ve worked with other bands like Songs: Ohia and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  How does working with them relate or differ to your work with a band like Okkervil River where you design all of their covers?

WS:  It varies. Godspeed asked me to use the images they used. I did not create those images for them. But bands like Songs:  Ohia, that’s the way I work with most bands. I asked for some things Jason was thinking of when he made the album, listen to tracks he provide me with, and go from there. In his case, all he said to me was that when he wrote the songs he was thinking a lot about owls, pyramids, and magnolias.

FN:  You’ve create pieces in a variety of mediums – paintings, drawings, collages, embroidery, mail art, scratchboards, movies and comics. Are you always looking for new ways to express yourself or simply don’t like to be restricted in how you express your ideas?

WS:  Certain pieces just feel as though they need to be created in certain medium. Granted, I have done some pieces repeatedly in a variety of mediums, but most pieces don’t speak to me that way. That sounds hokey, doesn’t it?

FN:  What inspires your art?

WS:  Watching everything going on around me.

FN:  How has the internet changed how you create? Is it harder to have an impact with an album cover in this day and age?

WS:  I am not sure. I would guess it is. I am sure it must be easier to not think of album art. I know many folks who when their iTunes is playing a track they have a big empty space with the musical note on their screen when the song is playing. I am baffled when I see this. I know for me, I go nuts searching for some of the album art. I cannot stand it if a track is playing and there is not the appropriate image up there on the screen. I imagine this is more a quirk of mine than the norm, though. Like folks who get pissed if the fork is on the wrong side of the place setting. Do people even think about that anymore? Is album art becoming the 21st century version of the place setting for silverware?

FN:  What is your work process like when designing an album cover?

WS:  I usually listen to the album over and over again, on repeat, as I create the work. This can often stand as a testament to the record if I don’t get bored of it while I making it. Think of it…listening to an full length l.p 30 to 40 times in a row. This isn’t always the case, though. For instance, I still haven’t heard the Mighty Mighty Bosstones album I did the artwork for, not one track off of it, but I did listen to a lot of their older tunes as I made it. But I will put the music on, sometimes sketch out very loose concept ideas, other times just stare at the blank surface I creating the piece on and dive right in. But it is safe to say that each album cover I have done (except for the Bosstones) shows a bit of where my head is at, at the time I creating it.

FN:  When you create a cover are you trying to capture the theme or sound of the recording or are you merely trying to grab a buyer’s attention with a striking image?

WS:  Not so much the second part you mentioned. I don’t think that comes into my mind as much as trying to capture what I hear in the album, and what’s going on in my own life at the same time. I guess I have (maybe an egotistical) faith that if Imake an image that I think is good, others will as well.

FN:  Who are some of the artists or designers who have inspired your work over the years?

WS:  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, the dreaded “inspiration” question!  The list is too long, but this much I can say.  I have learned a lot…looked at as teachers, you might say, from Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Kathe Kollwitz, Norman Rockwell, Samuel Bak, Rene Magritte, Jungil Hong, Dan Blakeslee, Brian Chippendale, Cw Roelle.  This is the short list.

FN:  Are they any other current album cover designers who you think are doing innovative or particularly beautiful work?

WS:  The one that stands out in my head as I read this question is the is the artwork for Of Montreal’s “Skeletal Lamping”. I like that cover alot.  [designed by the band’s lead singer & songwriter Kevin Barnes]  It’s exciting and fun. It captures the sound of their music very well. I am also a big fan of Brian Chippendale’s album covers for his band, Lightning Bolt. But I might be biased on that one, as I am a big fan of his work and his work ethic. I always thought the packing for that June of 44 album, the one that was basically a big matchbook, I always thought that was clever. I like it when a band gives me something to experience than is more than just the music. This is one of the reasons I love working for Graveface Records. Ryan Graveface always has such interesting ideas for how he wants people to experience the product that it becomes more than just music. For example, the recent record I did for his band, Dreamend, is an animated disc that you can watch as well as listen to at the same time.

FN:  You’ve recorded several YouTube videos and have been photographed wearing a variety of masks. Is that a way of maintaining anonymity, a signature look or simply an outgrowth of your playing drums in the “What Cheer? Brigade”.

WS:  I am not into people knowing what I look like unless I meet them face to face. I really believe that knowing what some artist you have never met looks like robs some folks of the ability to put themselves into the pieces they see. Instaead, the imagine this person they have seen an image of (and what that person must be like based on what they have seen) and view the art through that instead of vewing it through their own life. A good example would be Jandek. Think of how curious people were of who he is…they focused so much more on his music as a result. I would like to direct people to focus more on the visuals I create than the ugly mug I have, and what they might think the artist is like because they have seen it.

FN: In your bio you refer to punching people in the head as your regular pay work. Are you a boxer? Or simply fighting to make a living?

WS:  I was, until recently, the head of security (a bouncer) at a sizable nightclub. I had to stop. It was really starting to get to me that one can make much more money dealing with drunks than they can making art. As a result, I am now two months behind in my mortgage. I need an agent, or a manager. Dang.

FN:  You post a lot of the pieces you create on your Flickr account, some of them while they are still in progress. Do you do that to gather feedback or simply as a way to keep fans of your work up-to-date on what you’re doing at all times?

WS:  Both. I would love constructive feedback, because there is still much for me to learn, and a lot of folks out there who could probably give me good advice. But also, I get antsy if I don’t show folk that I am always working. I start to feel like a bum, and I need to prove to folk even though I am not making much money, I am still working plenty. This way no one can point their finger at me and say, “get a job!”  I got one already, and I can point to a lot of work to prove it. Although I am not sure if a vocation can be held up as a verified job. Can it?

FN:  Any words of advice for anyone interested in becoming an album cover designer?

WS:  Have a good day job or at least a modest trust fund.

FN:  We ask it to everyone, if you had to create a fake band what would its name be? First album? Any ideas for an album cover image?

WS:  Some folks I know came up with a band they wanted to (but never did) start called, “The Gini Pigs”. It was this handful of women of Italian descent at this bar I used to go to. They wanted to do harcore versions of Sinatra and traditional Italian songs. I thought the would have been brilliant! For album covers…hmmm..it would be debaucherous, and fun. It would involve something that looked fueled by outside, booze fueled influences. Might involve the leaning tower of Pisa as well, or some very recognizable Italian reference.

I’ll say it again…William Schaff is a damn good artist.  So show him some love and buy his stuff here and here.  Oh, and if you have a question for him – ask away, something tells me he’ll answer.

3 Responses to “The Dreaded Inspiration Question: A Conversation with William Schaff”

  1. frizbee Says:

    Great interview. I could not agree more that album art is becoming somewhat of a lost art. I have always been a fan of album artwork. As a kid, I used to sit and go through my parents’ massive c-d collection and just look through all of the artwork. Sometimes I would even start to make lists of what I thought were the best covers. For me, the artwork doesn’t always have to be grand and detailed. Sometimes the most minimal artwork speaks volumes. As long as it fits the music and the feel of the band, it works for me.

    I love the various mediums Will uses in creating his covers. Especially the embroidery and the scratchboard. I’ve always thought that scratchboard art is phenomenal, and embroidery is honestly something that I’ve never even thought of as a medium for album artwork. It certainly makes for unique and interesting cover art.

  2. theHoseman Says:

    Right now, I am much too deep in admiration to comment!

  3. ChildofAlma Says:

    I have that iTunes peeve as well! I always look for the artwork, even when it’s Cannibal Corpse artwork.

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