Bob Pepper - The Cover Our Tracks Interview
Viewed from our age of text boxes, snap-to-grid anchor points, and digital thumbnails, the hand-drawn, lushly colored, shape-shifting forms of Bob Pepper's illustrations seem to epitomize a lost epoch.
From his era-defining album covers for Elektra and RCA in the 1960s to his designs for Milton Bradley's Dragonmaster and Dark Tower games in the 1980s, Pepper's work pops up everywhere once you begin to look for it. Excellent universes seemed to find their way to him, seeking to be made real in his signature style, which combined a love of symmetry born of a solid art-school education with a deeply individual color-sense. His judicious respect for pattern, blur, bleed, and imperfection makes his work as instantly recognizable as it was ubiquitous: he illuminated worlds and ideas large and small all across the vast cultural landscape of the 1970s. Some of his most memorable images covered pocket paperback editions of now-classic Ballantine and Del Rey fantasy and science fiction books, including an incredible cover for Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, its many-eyed, Army-jacketed smoker staring out at us like a baleful, disregarded prophet.
Only now, peering at scanned reproductions on our glowing screens, can we appreciate how wonderfully these drawings represent the windblown pinnacle of the hand-drawn aesthetic, before illustration as a field was chained without mercy to the scanner, the printer, and the seventy-dollars-a-month Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. When they were new, Pepper's gouaches must have looked sharply stylized; now, they read as painterly, almost dreamy -- particularly in comparison to the hard-edged neon zigzags and Max Headroom-styled zaniness that would come to define the 80s.
Best known for his iconic cover of Love's Forever Changes album, Pepper created fifty-odd covers for Elektra and RCA. I recently reached him by phone at his home in Brooklyn, and we spoke about his work and influences, the current state of illustration and music, and what he really thinks of that Love album.
LKH: I want to start by asking about your work for Nonesuch, because I have a Nonesuch Explorer record on vinyl with a beautifully illustrated cover you did. What was your experience with them? What was the art direction like?
BP: Oh, the art direction was great. Bill Harvey was the art director. You know, I just walked in off the street. That was how we did it then: you'd take your portfolio around. We'd moved to New York in 1962 -- something like that -- and I looked for work, but freelance illustration was not working out too well; they were going to photography for everything. So I joined a group, you know, that did mostly brochures and things, and you went around with your portfolio and tried to drum up work that way.
I'd seen a Nonesuch cover in the record store already, in the bargain bin. The Nonesuch label -- the records were priced cheap, only a dollar fifty, I think, for a record. They were bright-colored and used Art Nouveau kind of lettering, and they all had like a square picture that was decorative and brightly-colored, and stylized, and that was the kind of thing I was doing at the time.
So, I took my portfolio over there and Bill Harvey gave me a job for Elektra Records -- which was their main recording name. Nonesuch was just a new outreach from Elektra, and they only did classical music at first, which they got from Europe for practically nothing I guess, and they put out these records priced accordingly. And they were big sellers I think because of the covers.
LKH: The covers you did for them are amazing.
BP: Thank you. All their covers were good. And they had, like, six artists that they were using, and they were all similar in their approach, as I was too. And Bill would just give you the record and you'd go home and listen to it, and you'd come up with an image. Well, you know, you'd get a sort of a history on it, and you could make up your own picture, and I thought that was really neat. But I only got paid $150 for each cover.
BP (laughs): But you know, you could get by on a lot less then. And I got other work on the strength of those covers. Although sometimes they didn't give me the original work back, and later I found some of them in some of [the label executives'] apartments! And finally I wised up and decided I would ask for the originals back and be persistent.
Some of my covers I liked better than others. I ended up doing something like fifty-one covers for Nonesuch. This was over a period from 1964 up to 1970-something. During that time, Elektra branched out and they did a series of these double records -- they called it Checkmate, but it was still under Nonesuch, maybe. Or was it? I don't know, but anyway, they were a little higher priced. Black and white covers. They wanted it all in line drawings, and with lots of Art Nouveau twirlies. And I did several of those covers. Then they had an international series; the covers were black and white, or black and white with a little color. Those featured recordings from different countries. Like gamelan music and Japanese flute.
LKH: The one I have is exactly that: Javanese gamelan, Balinese gamelan, and then shakuhachi and koto music. With a line drawing on the cover that evokes those instruments and the cultures they come from. There's a lot of color on the cover, though.
BP: Oh, so that would be -- I think that was a little later. That was all really richly colored. I'll tell you, I think Roger Hane was one of their best artists -- he was one of their main artists and he was really good I thought. He got his bicycle stolen in Central Park and [the muggers] killed him.
LKH: Oh, my God. That's awful.
BP: Yeah. That was pretty bad. It was toward the beginning. He was doing more work than I was. He was a little more refined in terms of style, I think, than I was. Anyway, after I finished that bout with record covers, I got involved with fantasy covers, as you know, for books. I did a lot of that kind of work, in essentially the same style -- well, my style was a little more refined by then.
LKH: What were some of the sources for your images? Did you use models or --?
BP: No, I never used models. Sometimes I would look at pieces of art -- like from the Renaissance or something -- and I'd sort of use that as a guide.
LKH: Wow. Because when I think of some of the covers for Del Rey -- like the Philip K. Dick titles you did -- the people look so specific and individual. I'm thinking of the guy on the cover of A Scanner Darkly.
BP: Oh, but that was really in the 80's, and by then I had changed my style to be much more realistic. I'd still have a line around everything, though, and I experimented with different techniques during the time that I was working on them. So I sometimes drew on acetate, and then I filled in the colors -- you know, so that gave me a more a washy look.
LKH: Do you use gouache, mostly?
BP: I've used gouache. At that time, in fact, I used only gouache and I liked it because it dried fast and it was easy to re-work it -- to cover up or change it if I wanted to. And the colors are bright, but they weren't as bright as what it turned into -- you know, when people were using that -- what's that other kind of paint that I don't like, the one that's sort of plastic-like?
LKH: Um. Acrylic?
BP: Acrylic, yeah. That paint dries and it's all too bright. I didn't like it. I like more of a grayed color. I tried to keep my colors bright -- they were bright, but they were grayed. And it seemed to me that the colors all went together, you know? To form some sort of cohesion in the design.
I went to art school and studied illustration, but also advertising. So I was very intent on design: how the whole thing held together with shapes. And I was in love with texture, you know. Sometimes I would put patterns into it, you know, like if a figure was wearing, I don't know, lace -- the lace would be drawn out so that it made a pattern. In the colored areas, nothing was ever really solid; it always had a washy look to it. There was an illustrator named James Hill; he used to do a lot of Pocket Book covers, and he was very stylized, and I was in love with his work. So at the time I was very influenced by him and a lot of my stuff was like that.
A lot of times it was -- what's the word I want -- symmetrical, so there'd be like a figure in the center of a black background, and he'd break it up with pattern. His work was very detailed, but it was very stylized also. So that crept into my work, as well as other artists who were doing covers there. Roger Hane influenced me quite a bit.
And for classical recordings, I went to the library a lot and researched the periods. So if it was a Bach cover I might've found a picture of Bach, and used that as a source, but sort of stylized it. And the way I'd show him would be similar to the things I saw that were printed back in that century, you know. So like a big Bach holding like a sheet of music, with a scene behind him that's like water music or whatever the case might be.
It was mostly design that we were working with, and then when they got into the black-and-white covers, it was more of a continuing shape -- more like a movie poster. The different scenes would sort of overlap one another and sort of go down the page or across the page, flowing into each other. There was a recording of [Igor Stravinsky's] Rite of Spring -- I loved that recording a lot. I used the recording to key my illustration to. I wanted the illustration to reflect the way the music sounded: it was very stylized and colorful, and it was dark, also. I was very happy with what I did with that. I don't know if it was any good, but I liked it. (laughs)
LKH: Would the format be bigger when you'd work on the original drawing?
BP: I would usually work twice up -- so if it was a square on the record cover, the original would be -- not all that big, but bigger than what it was going to be printed as. And then later, much later, when I hadn't done any Nonesuch covers for a while, I got called by Bill Harvey again, and he wanted me to do this rock album for Love.
LKH: Oh yes, that's a famous one. Maybe your most famous cover.
BP: And I didn't like their music at all, and this was about the time that there were a lot of rock bands out there that were really good, I thought. But I didn't like them at all. But I took it, and because I was heavily into Art Deco and Art Nouveau, and also into... I guess you'd call it, what do I want to say... psychedelic art, I combined elements of all of that. I put all their heads together and I made their hair like a design element, and the skin color was, like, solarized, so that the shadows were green and the white part was red or something -- you know. And I put it on a white background and it was centered. And that record later became like an iconic record, because people used it -- you know, because it had a white background -- to do their cocaine things.
LKH: (laughs): And that's what made it so iconic of that era?
BP (laughs): Well, anyway, that's what I heard! And Bill Harvey changed my design. I mean, I guess he changed it. Because I had the lips on the main character closed, and then, when it got printed, he'd drawn a smile in there! And it didn't fit the sides of the lips. And that's the way it came out, and I didn't like that at all. He did it without asking me or saying anything about it. That's happened to me a couple of times: where an art director has changed my illustration.
LKH: And usually it's work for hire, so you don't retain rights.
BP: Yeah. We had a contract. I don't remember what the contract said, but almost all of the working artists back then, we gave the buyer the rights, and then you'd find out that they were selling them in Europe and you didn't get paid for that... or they'd even change the cover somewhat for that. Then finally artists got wise. They didn't really want to join a union, because that would cause other problems, but they sort of got together in a collective -- and they had their own rules and everything, and got people to change things, but then eventually they changed it around again. So that now, you can buy art off a company and the artist doesn't get paid much.
And the people running these things don't have any thing to do with art, they're mostly businessmen from Australia (laughs). They're money-hungry. And it is disappointing because often the artist doesn't have any way of keeping track of how much money they're making so that he can get a percentage of it.
LKH: That's true in music as well as in visual arts, I think. I don't know if it's getting harder, but it is hard to make a living at it now.
BP: Well, and the computer screwed it up too because -- I think it has, anyway -- because the computer, when it first came out -- okay, fine, you could do some things well with it. Which was usually a gradient background or a solid-color background, and line work on top of it. So that you started getting this artwork that looked sort of like 1950s modern, like you'd see in a Betty Crocker cookbook, you know? Like a woman with her apron? Only the stylization was funky -- it just wasn't good. There's no layout to the page, they use all different typefaces, they clump them all together, they make them so small they're unreadable... and on and on. Anyway, it's because you have people doing it who haven't been trained in art and don't have a lot of experience. But they're in love with the idea that they can do it all on the computer by pressing a button or something. I thought, I could learn to work in that style -- but then I couldn't bring myself to do it. So I'd always add something to it that I thought would make it better, and pretty soon I'm not asked for because I'm not doing the modern stuff. So in a way the computer changed what was popular -- and it left out a lot of people who did art by hand because they didn't know how to make it look like it was done by machine.
LKH: I think a lot of people -- illustrators as well as recording artists -- feel that vinyl album covers were a golden age in terms of cover art. You had a thirteen by thirteen inch canvas to fill, as opposed to the smaller cover of a CD case; and now with mp3's, it's just a tiny thumbnail image.
BP: Yeah. Well, I did a lot of things for RCA after I did Nonesuch -- and it's true, I had the whole album cover to work with -- the artwork could go edge to edge. Some of them, I thought, really came out nicely. So you're right. I liked having albums all lined up where I could read the spines -- and then pull them out so I could see the cover. I had CDs for a while, but what I didn't like about CDs was that on an LP the selection would go to an end and then just sort of peter out, but on a CD it just stops. Sometimes it would start going down the way it's supposed to and then you'd hear it just stop. Because the digital thing was doing its ones and zeros, and the only way to get this smooth transition on a lot of stuff was to record it at a higher -- well, I don't know what they call it, but it was something that adds more zeroes and ones in it. And that would be more expensive for them and they figured most people didn't notice the difference, but I did.
LKH: Yeah... and some tracks that are meant to blend into each other get chopped in two on a CD, with a little blank space of dead air in between.
BP: Sure. I was replacing all my LPS with CDs because at the time they were re-releasing them all, and so I had the comparison. There were favorite parts in some of these songs that I would listen to -- and I would totally miss it when I would play the CD. And I'm not sure why that was but it was something about the level of sound. It just didn't come off the same way. Sometimes on the [vinyl] LP it had this air quality sound, where on the CD it was all sort of mechanical. The notes and everything were the same. So were the instruments. But it just didn't blend together the way it did on the LP. So in some cases it affected the way you heard the music.
So I didn't like that about CDs. It got better, I think, if you actually got something that was digitally recorded in the first place rather than something recorded for vinyl and then transferred to digital. And sometimes, like, the treble sound of little things -- like when you mentioned that flute, before -- they're more treble-y and in the beginning that sorta wasn't good and now it seems they've improved it, they can get it. But actually, it's sharper and clearer, and that's not quite right either. It's not exactly what music should be -- maybe it doesn't have enough bass. And a lot of new music is reflecting these changes in how people record and how they listen, so that now it's more of a [makes high-pitched, annoying insect noises] thing, rather than a full-bodied orchestral sound.
So I have some CDs and I still have all my records too; but I hardly have time to listen to any of it now. Now it almost seems like you press a button to get a background beat, and then you put in a couple of things and you just keep repeating it over and over again. I can appreciate the sounds, but I don't know if it's actually musical. And I love music... so.
LKH: You've said that when doing an illustration for an album cover you'd listen to the recording for inspiration. Beyond that, what kind of music do you like to listen to?
BP: Mostly, I like complicated music. So classical music is one of my main things that I like. And I like opera. And I like rythmatic rock and jazz that's like California jazz like Dave Brubeck or something and early jazz -- like razzmatazz jazz. I like syncopated music a lot. And, oh, during the rock period there were several groups I liked. I like when it has a melodic tone to it. You know the song "River Deep, Mountain High"?
LKH: Yes. That's objectively a great song.
BP: I like that song a lot. It has a melodic tone, yet it's sort of dark at the same time. And I do like some of The Beatles. Mostly just that one album with all the people on the cover (laughs).
LKH: I ...I think know the one you mean (laughs).
BP: The best is the one that ends in a big, beautiful, chaotic orchestral crash.
LKH: "A Day In The Life".
BP: Yes. And "Here Comes the Sun", I would maybe add that one song. But I don't like their hippy dippy stuff, the silly ones -- tiptoeing through the tulips, or whatever. And I don't like heavy metal, you know, and I don't like Jefferson Airplane, although I do like some of the bands from that time. I have a wide variety of music that I like, and I like some foreign music too, but if it's too esoteric then you lose me. I need some kind of melodic element. I need something to hold onto, or else you lose me.
LKH: Can you tell me any album covers that influenced you, or that you think of as favorites, that were illustrated by someone other than yourself?
BP: Oh, I can think of some, yes. There was a period where there were several artists doing really great work. Do you know the group Yes? I think the same guy did all their covers -- I love his work. It's surrealistic and very detailed and I liked the colors and the psychedelic look. I'm trying to think of the name... Roger Dean. He was a big influence.
And what's the name of the guy that did the movie posters -- his figures were really good, and he captured realism with them, but they were stylized too. He ended up doing all the Indiana Jones posters. He had a beautiful signature -- he'd sign just "Drew." [Drew Struzan.] Oddly enough, I was actually friends with the guy who did the first Indiana Jones poster, Richard Amsel. I liked his work a lot. He did a lot of movie posters; he did the poster for The Sting. That was a sort of a copy of a [J.C.] Leyendecker painting. Well, not that it was a copy, but it was in the style of Leyendecker, who was a 19th century artist. And as far as influences, I used the same kind of technique that Arthur Rackham used-- he was an illustrator from that time.
LKH: I love Arthur Rackham. I have a print by him. No, actually it's just a bookplate. I found it in a bin at a used bookstore.
BP: Ah. Yeah. Well, I spent a lot of time studying the work of other illustrators, but trying to get the style that I wanted. And I wanted to animate a film -- I wrote the film, actually, but I didn't end up making it. I realized that with something like that there are all these boring parts of the film, where they're just talking or something, and you have to do like twenty-four frames per second, so I don't think I wanna do that, but I did play around with the idea.
Well, anyway, as far as covers that influenced me, really Roger Dean, you should look at all of his work. He did a lot of covers for Yes. I had them all, but they're in a box. We had fire awhile back, and we boxed everything up.
LKH: Oh, I'm so sorry to hear --
BP: Well, no, no -- I mean, that was quite a while ago. Only now, a lot of my stuff, my albums and things and my original work, is packed up in a box in storage somewhere.
LKH: That's really tough.
BP: Yeah, it is. I like having it here. It's funny. Everybody I know is so intent on getting rid of all their stuff. Me, I just like hanging on to it. I like having my old work around. It reminds me that I did that. I get a big kick out of that.