Album Art Design: A Behind-The-Scenes Peek With Dashing Rogue Kyle Baker

Hello again. Kyle Baker here, on assignment for Kevin Browning, Directing Caresser of Management Business Creativity Development at Umphrey’s MaGoo Inc, who asked me a rather long time ago to write up an article on the album art for Similar Skinwhich I designed earlier this year under his art direction and with the help of my pal Chris, aka Monaghan Photography.

Left to right: Chris Monaghan, Kyle Baker, Quincy. I’ve been fond of telling people how I had to literally blow smoke up someone’s ass for the first time, but the truth is I was blowing e-cig vapor, not smoke, and it wasn’t so much up her butt as it was across her torso. (It wouldn’t have really been the first time anyway.)

My first three years out of college I worked as a graphic and web designer in-house for a small company. It is noteworthy that the fella who hired me is a fanatical Umphreak named Keef who turned me on to the band at this time. By which I mean he played no less than two shows per day in the small office we shared for two years.

I started designing show posters on the side during that time and The Steepwater Band is the first band I ever worked for. I am, to this day, absolutely fruit loops for that rock’n’roll outfit, so just making art for their gigs was a little dream come true.

I quit my job when they asked me to design their 2008 LP Grace and Melody. I was over the moon. I decided the time was ripe to go it alone. I have no earthly idea where I’d be today had I not quit at that moment.

I learned a ton during that experience. A big part was how album art can be—and more often than not, is—a real monster of a design project. As a quick frame of reference, consider this: according to the AIGA, fully 37% of all initial concepts for album art are voted out by the xylophonist’s second wife.

Having moved more heavily into illustration in my career, I work only sporadically with photographers. It’s a real treat to do a proper shoot and have a big pile of images to source from.

My bread and butter—designing and screen-printing gig posters—is a comparatively ephemeral exercise with regards to the intersection of visual art and music. Designing album art is a much tougher proposition insofar as it represents a more permanent marriage of the two. At its best it can be iconic of the music it represents. And it should just plain feel right, intuitively and without need for justification. So it is natural that even the normally-quietest stakeholders, band members or otherwise, are far more vocal, opinionated, and generally involved when it comes to album art. (Logo/identity design work is a similar exercise for the same reasons.)

That being said, when Umphrey’s asked me to design Similar Skin, my excitement wasn’t the slightest bit dampened by knowing the considerable challenge facing me. I love this band so much and the task is as high an honor as a poster goon like myself can be trusted with. Hell, these guys hired prolific album art hero Storm Thorgerson (RIP). Twice! It’s a rare thing to work for a band that genuinely values a tradition whose main media is has shrunk over the decades from a 12″ LP jacket on your coffee table to a 200-pixel square thumbnail on your mobile telephone.

It’s a cardinal sin of commercial art—or at least a really, really bad idea 99% of the time—to give a client a ton of choices. I broke that rule with full awareness of what I was doing and what the consequences might be.

So all the times over the years a gig went pear-shaped on me and I succombed to a lukewarm compromise of design-by-committee—that watered-down mishmash of incompatible ideas—suddenly I forget those misadventures entirely and I’m just a diehard fan who can’t believe his luck again.

As it turned out the process was exceptionally fun. In fact it was—I probably shouldn’t admit this—damn-near easy. (The deluxe edition was actually a bit intense from a production standpoint but overall it was as positive an experience as a designer can hope for.) And I think we did the music justice. It definitely feels right to me.

Here’s sorta kinda how it went down.

I met with Browning and Rachel Lowen, Executive VP of Strategic Branding Operations and Merchandisability Administration, over lunch outside UMHQ. They told me about the project and asked if I was available to design it. Why yes, dear friends, I think I may be able to squeeze it in.

We talked a lot about it and I could tell they were both very excited. Particularly so about the new tunes that were still being mixed at the time. I was surprised to learn that they had decided to release the album independently, and we discussed how that would affect the design process as compared to our experience doing Death by Stereo, which was released by ATO Records. A major consideration was lining up distribution and how that put us on an accelerated timeline for getting the art done.

I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have such an exercise in restraint. I spent nearly two hours kerning the title—i.e. nudging and tweaking the spacing between letters.

Then, just as I was dozing off, we got onto the subject of the art itself. Kevin explained that he had showed the band some reference photos that they were all pretty amped about—primarily abstract nude silhouettes of the female human variety. That’s at least half the battle right there (getting six musicians on the same page) though I was reserved in my enthusiasm for the concept because I hadn’t spent any time marinating on the thought, nor—more importantly—listening to the music. The three of us spit-balled some ways that imagery might be used to represent the titular song in particular, but we also speculated that it shouldn’t end up being a terribly on-the-nose interpretation this go-round (see: Death by Stereo).

Kevin further related that he envisioned the design being quite clean and sparse, and that we were going to keep things pretty simple with the packaging—4-panel digipak for the CD and double-LP gatefold for the vinyl. I was thrilled to here the former but slightly disappointed by the latter because I thought the concept was very extensible and kind of wanted to make a big fancy mess of the thing. Then again I had a lot of other work going on and it was probably for the best that we keep things simple.

It wasn’t until after we parted ways that it finally occurred to me: I was going to get paid to focus my creative energies on one or more naked ladies. Oh yeah, and it happened to be for Umphrey’s new album too.

After that first meeting I was tasked with securing our photographer. I spoke to Monaghan and he was eager to join, and could get the shoot scheduled in the studio pretty quickly. He started immediately at the tedious, back-breaking work of finding a nude model for our shoot. He found one that met our lofty epidermal requirements. We’ll call her “Quincy” since she declined being credited in the liner notes.

I asked the guys to change up their writing utensils, weight especially, on the lyrics to get some variety on those pages (and from a practical standpoint, it made designing easier because you no longer have to be sensitive to uniformity of scale/line-weight).

Our photo shoot was on a frigid evening in early February. As discussed I showed up to the studio with a humidifier, a fog machine, and a spray bottle. I wanted to get some shots with steam rising from and condensing on Quincy’s skin to play up the titular line in Similar Skin’s song of the same name. It was more of a literal interpretation than we were out for but I also had a hunch that we’d get some interesting shots out of the effort that may prove useful elsewhere if not on our covers.

The shoot lasted a couple hours and we got a big pile of great source material out of it. I’d say it was about as wholesome a time as three gentlemen paying a naked lady to contort into various positions in a huge, dark, and otherwise vacant warehouse building while squirting her with water, blowing smoke on her, and taking pictures gets. We had fun.

A couple days later Browning came over to Baker Prints to sift through the results and show each other the photos we’d flagged as favorites. This is where the whole thing took another unexpected turn—KB was so happy with the quality and quantity of material he decided he wanted to make a 36-page, LP-sized book for the deluxe edition of the vinyl.

Here’s where things got a bit hairy. Figuratively speaking.

End of Part I. Deluxe spelunking coming soon.