Ahead of the 2020 Grammy ceremony, Discogs spoke with each of the nominees for Best Album Package about the importance of design and the physical record experience.
Nominated for their work on Bon Iver‘s i,i were art directors Aaron Anderson and Eric Timothy Carlson. Together, they touched on the conceptual approach to their work and the importance of process in collaboration.
How did you start your collaboration together?
EC: I grew up and went to art school in Minneapolis, where I met Aaron, and we’ve been collaborating since 2005. Working on art within the music community in the midwest became a big part of that.
AA: In Minneapolis, we worked a lot with our friend Crystal Quinn and, all of the sudden, it was an ‘artist collective’ called Hardland/Heartland. We did a bunch of crazy stuff in Minneapolis — exhibitions, clothing — and started working with bands a lot.
We had this idea of working with bands to create and alter ego within the universe that we were creating, as opposed to working with somebody to make an alter ego for themselves. For example, rappers were pretty protective of their public identity and afraid to do something weird. But if they did something in our world, they might drop their guard. We did that for about eight years in Minneapolis, and now Eric and I have been working on and off together in Brooklyn ever since.
You don’t hear Minneapolis come up as an ‘art capital’ of the US very often, even though it sounds like the scene is really rich there. What did you learn and take with you from that city?
AA: Minneapolis is a cultural community that’s easy to interface with. When we were there, it was really fertile and there was a lot of energy. It is far enough away from everything, so there isn’t as much outside influence, which makes the scene stronger.
A lot of Eric’s first jobs in design were with Rhymesayers. I was hanging out with a band called The Plastic Constellations, and all these other auxiliary people from various scenes. Just being there, around so many different types of mediums and people, made for a better stew of creative ideas. You realize that just doing stuff is what’s important.
Justin [Vernon] had seen Eric’s album work and the rest of the art we were making. The collaborative energy around the new album i,i was in line with a lot of the things we were talking about back then. You can draw a through line from where we are now back to that in a lot of ways. For example, Crystal [from Hardland/Heartland] worked on the photography for i,i as well.
Prior to the i,i artwork, you both worked on 22, A Million in some capacity. How did you get brought in the Bon Iver collective?
EC: I moved to New York in 2011. I was still designing album artwork, but I started working with performance theater and designing books. Bon Iver first reached out around that same time I was moving to New York. But it wasn’t until a few years later when there was movement on 22, A Million that they brought me over to the recording studio to talk about working on that album. And since then, I’ve maintained an art director position with Bon Iver.
AA: I art directed with Eric and did the lyric videos for 22, A Million, but in talking with Justin, it just kind of made sense for Eric and I to take it on together. We just dove in with an over-generation of things — making a big pile of stuff.
EC: The collaboration with Aaron on the lyric videos for 22, A Million really expanded our capabilities for building a world around a project. So coming into i,i we were working toward the video — and even with a dance company for the Come Through performances — from the beginning. That just made the world even bigger. Some of what was performed with Come Through were essentially just sketches, so it was interesting to spend so much time performing those works before the album was finished. Then when it was complete, it’s these two worlds of the same music existing simultaneously.
Aaron, you tend to work more on the video side of things. How did you jump into that?
AA: I grew up in South Dakota, and moved to Minneapolis for school at Minneapolis College of Art and Design for animation. I started teaching at MCAD, and working at the Walker Arts Center as a film projectionist for five years until I moved to Brooklyn.
Animation was my introduction to the film world. I’m really interested in abstract and experimental films as well. But with animation, you can control everything in the world. Time is malleable in a different way. There isn’t a lot of experimentation [in film] any more because of the monetizing factors behind content production. Eric and I were very fortunate on this project to be as creative as we could be. That’s invaluable.
How did you guys divide the work on this project? Eric, are you taking the lead on the physical product and Aaron, are you taking the lead on the video side?
AA: Yes, in a way. I’m rendering the final video files and Eric is exporting the final print finals. There was a level of pre-production and brainstorming — we both did some of the drawing. It’s still pretty collaborative though. We share a studio, and see each other all the time, so it’s a very fluid process.
For the video specifically on this project, we went out to El Paso and recorded a bunch of stuff. We generated the majority of the images between there and Justin’s studio in Wisconsin. It gave us a feel for the cast of characters that were populating the album, figuratively and literally. Not necessarily building a mythology around it, but starting to translate it all into visuals.
That speaks of the ‘world-building’ process you both have alluded to.
AA: Yeah. Here, it wasn’t as much about controlling the world, but watching everything sort of sit next to each other and function in a unique way. It’s a little more hands off and organic, which yields more interesting results.
EC: For the most part, I don’t work toward things with a preconceived notion of where I’m finishing, so I adamantly follow the process. You pull out research from anything you have, from any given phase, and address the songs and lyrics with the artist you are in collaboration with, before you build the content. That inherently produces that world-building — generating nuggets, pieces, and elements all through the way. Instead of having particular illustration or artwork as the cover, you create documents that have hundreds of assets that can be used in a multitude of ways, over the multitude of formats in which they’ll be experienced.
Naturally, as life is, there is these exponential amount connections between these pieces. Though you may experience them in some linear way — like looking at the cover, and then inside the booklet, then the liner notes and the sequence of songs — you might get information in one experience, but then you get other pieces of the same story in a totally different experience. Every time you invest in a different component of the whole, you start to be able to piece more and more of that stuff together. You build a process that naturally allows that growing understanding and you invest more time into it. I think there is a lot that can be experienced in that naturally. Don’t force it, just let it grow and show what it is.
The packaging — and this is an utmost compliment — almost does feel like a sketchbook or, in a more digital world, a scrolling feed of images as you might see on social media. Being bombarded with imagery, content, art… whatever you want to call it.
AA: We’re very familiar with the concept of a frame inside of a frame, and the digital scroll. We had a blog where we learned how to poetically interact online — posting one thing after another without direction. So it made sense for the booklet to look like that.
And I still think about things that way. It’s past aesthetic, and becomes more of a learned technique or vernacular. I can read it, but it sounds different when two other people read it. Like a poem. Visually the poem is the same, but there are so many different readings.
EC: I love collage. It’s such a simple form and so naturally ingrained into the way I think, make, and organize material. And, yeah, going all the way back to when we were in school with some of our early collaborative works — using Blogspot to make these simple digital collages by breaking the backend to overlay images inside TextEdit files, seeing how images butt up against each other and start to bleed into one another.
That approach of making a mess, then amounts to process. In making hundreds of illustrations and collecting hundreds of photographs & all the notes associated with the music itself, you then generate a massive body of work. In the digital world, how do you navigate this and make it a beautiful experience as opposed to an answer or thesis? Create an environment to enter into and give the viewer a chance to imagine and build connections.
When I look at that collage style of the artwork, it reminds me of the music in that sense. Bon Iver similarly feels like melodic collage; sounds and textures that shouldn’t go together, yet they work beautifully.
AA: Totally. Even the difference in sequencing two pictures next to one another vs. a picture next to a texture. Those can be totally different conversations. Same with the music. It doesn’t sound wrong, but it sounds very different. That’s what’s intriguing to me.
EC: Yeah, it’s the question: how do you think of everybody contributing at once and spread that shine. One of the primary conversations early on was about individuals. The title i,i about all of the individuals that account for the whole. People regard Bon Iver as this singular person, but we wanted to reflect the current truth of it being this multitude of people. That’s why on the interior gatefold there is portraits of the vast majority of contributors, from the dancers to management to engineers to guitars techs. They’re all pictured as Bon Iver, together, on the interior.
What is the process of what would make it into the final design?
EC: In the process of creating the material, you don’t want to shut down anything that comes to mind, but there are plenty of pieces that never see the light of day. Specifically for i,i and the cut paper collage pieces that occur, that process made for some hard edits. There’s a little bigger body of work that’s not in the booklet, but most of the hits made it into the packaging.
For the cover art, there’s probably ten pieces that are the special [images]. Throughout the process, the cover keeps being addressed, but in our process, the cover was not supposed to be a pinnacle. We’d share the work between Aaron and myself, Justin [Vernon] and the rest of the collective in the conversation to see what is resonating. We wanted it to be open to something so casual.
I do, however, feel like there are two covers to the project. There’s the digital one with colors and smoke. But that is on a plastic sleeve. When you take that off, you have this largely black ‘i,i’ text. That, in and of itself, feels like a real cover. For the digital & CD release that is the cover. Being able to play with that open-endedness feels right. Oh, and The grid of the internal cover is the same grid as the same as 22, A Million.
I love little easter eggs like that. I also noticed the ‘i,i’ on the cover is just Hawaii partially crossed out too. Is that where the title came from? Maybe that’s more a question for Justin.
EC: That album title had come up far beyond that moment. But, Justin was wearing that hat during the final recording session in El Paso. Somebody got a paint marker and blacked out the letters. The photographer was hanging out there too, so after he got the picture somebody said, “Oh that’s the album cover.” And I said, “Yeah, that straight up could be the album cover.” [laughs]
But I think the first time I heard the album title, was far before we were in spitting distance of finishing the album. It was the summer after 22, A Million and Justin and I were in Wisconsin listening to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry while painting a barn. Perhaps he’d been thinking about it before or maybe it was at that moment too, but he said “I’m thinking about ‘i,i’.
You’ve both worked with a variety of different artists like Low and Cashmere Cat to name a couple. How is the process working with Bon Iver different?
AA: We just had a lot more freedom, time and input during the process. As a result, we got to resonate with it in a special way. We were around for the writing and recording process, and that is an invaluable window… hearing the different versions of the songs, the different ideas that you can attach yourself onto and decide what is appropriate for the visual representation.
EC: Working on the two Bon Iver albums has been a unique, special, robust experience, as far as making artwork for an album is concerned. You wouldn’t usually get the experience unless it was your own project. With 22, A Million there was a very specific conversation toward a direction early on. i,i was really opened up.
I really respect and enjoy this approach to making the work because it lets it really develop and be what it can be. Not just putting a package on an album necessarily. The process is designed to support the process of art-making and let the visual component be as acknowledged as the music itself. Because of that, the packaging gets to be self-reflective. It can be about the art itself, making the artwork, or the collaboration in that process.
Since you both also work in the video space with the record, do you see this as an expansion of the packaging as music continues into the digital space?
AA: I don’t see it as an object, in the way that the album is a physical object. But, and I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, it is an egalitarian way of distributing information. It should all be connected, and shouldn’t be a separate idea. People, in general, are comfortable with that connection.
What is the contemporary importance of album art and packaging?
EC: Growing up in punk houses and DIY communities, there was always somebody building their record collection, or self-releasing some cassette tapes. Seeing the work in that context as a physical thing… they are these beautiful objects that can be passed around and travel. Books come to mind too. You can give it to somebody and share it. It can have different owners and marking of its own personal history. That’s what I love about the physical object.
AA: Once all the power goes out and we’re running off generators, you can still listen to a record on a record player, right? So the packaging should be cool. I listen to digital music, but the physical and digital serves two purposes that run alongside each other.
EC: Album art does have an important place in culture, though. Some of the first experiences of contemporary art I may have received growing up in rural Minnesota was through album artwork. I’m so open to how people can approach it. Depending on what your format is, you can arrive at different answers and different necessities.
AA: Yeah. I don’t think video has been investigated enough in the context of an album. There’s such cool stuff you could do. As more people incorporate that line of thought into things like print processes, it’s just going to get more freaky and weird.
In making lyric videos or visualizers as a tool for bands, we’re just getting comfortable making those more interesting, not just a picture of the cover. You could also have a music video-level storyline in a :15 second clip on Instagram, but at the same time I’m not advocating for that. [laughs] Soon, we might just have AI making bad motion graphics. Is that what we’re going to be forced to watch in twenty years on our phones?
I worry about that all the time. How things like films could be edited, or songs could be composed with AI.
AA: You hear about movies now that are based on supercuts of other movies. I love watching movies for inspiration, but I can’t imagine emulating the cuts from another one. That level of appropriation seems confusing.
When you become too aware of something’s structure, it begins to take the fun out…
AA: Totally! I had an instructor in college who explained that he didn’t like watching chases in movies. At the time I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Now I feel like I’ve seen all the same one’s he’d probably seen and I feel the same way.
That feeling is not a response I’m interested in feeling in my consumption of art and culture. But the formula won’t change because the system doesn’t want it to.
With the video work for the i,i album, Eric and I were trying to add more immersion to something that initially embraced flatness — an idea of desktop publishing. How do you do that in a way that doesn’t feel formulaic with formula being a meter of success?
EC: There is this model [of process] that we’ve been working on and every time we do it, it’s going to morph, change and grow. There’s a lot of space in following the process. It’s a powerful thing that can bring about some unexpected results. So much of what we do is of modest production methods. All of the videos, and the artwork — outside the photography — is Aaron and I in the studio doing all of it. To me, it’s about following that open process.