IF: Tell us about how you originally connected with Son Step. How did the collaboration unfold?
NB: Son Step actually contacted me. I just looked back at my records to see if I could figure out how that all started, and I see that Joel actually sent me a text message last fall. At the time, I didn’t know who he was, but I have a public number that I keep online, just for this purpose. He sent over a few texts basically telling me about his band, how they liked my work, they were prepping an album and wanted to know if I worked with bands. And I do. Back when I was growing up and still living in Omaha, I played in a punk band. That was a really fruitful time for music in Omaha and the Midwest, no matter what type of music you were making. We were super active, went on tours and released more than a few records. At one point, my buddy Kevin & I actually started a small label that had these grand aspirations. Being involved in music at that time got me interested in all of the other stuff that goes into music – packaging, merch, trying to make the funds to tour. So before I ever moved out to San Francisco, I had designed more than a few album covers, silkscreened a few thousand t-shirts and all of that other stuff.
Joel texting me is a pretty common occurrence for me. Bands will see my stuff around the internet and send something over asking if ever do album covers. And I do, because I like music and I like having my work out there like that. Almost every time, the musicians I work with just end up wanting to license a painting or drawing that is already completed. These days, a lot of stuff is just released digitally, but sometimes the groups I work with release stuff on cd, or vinyl. Some do posters. There’s a fairly long history of musicians and visual artists working together, and yeah, I’m stoked to keep doing projects like that. I don’t have the time to play music really anymore and was really never that great to begin with, but it’s cool to stay involved with that stuff.
Aaron, the drummer I played with way back when, he’s in a group that just released their first album with Bridge Nine last week. That dude was and is the real deal, as far as music is involved. I’m content to just work on images that people feel illustrates what they’re talking about in their music.
IF: What was your process during the initial creation of the piece that was used as the cover art? What is the meaning of the piece to you, as its on entity, aside from an album art cover?
NB: So, the painting is titled “Others”. I just went back and looked to see when I made that painting, and I think I finished it around the end of 2013. Like, maybe closer to summer/fall? I keep awful records of this stuff and really need to get better.
Around this time, I was just painting and seeing what happened. I had been out of graduate school for about five or six years. In that time, I had my stuff represented by a few galleries that unfortunately ended up closing. So I was at this point where I had no representation, knew a lot of people, but could experiment a bit more. I started playing with some different processes that I hadn’t used before. The year or so before I had started to tape my canvases a lot more. Like, when I first came out of grad school, my work was almost entirely collage. Torn sheets of paper that were pasted onto a rigid support to build landscapes. A few years out of school I had started to paint a lot more.
This painting has a large aqueduct in the background that was painted in. I taped off the shape of the structure and then used a squeegee to pull paint over this, effectively creating a stencil. Then I pulled the tape up and the structure, made up of texture paint, remained. There’s also a stencil in the sky that references a Dyson sphere, or even maybe a Buckminster Fuller dome. Something that gives structure to the sky and reinforces that there’s something holding the surrounding landscape together. Up on the aqueduct are some figures that you can see, and in the foreground is a colorful structure with two figures looking up at the others on the bridge that connects the two sides of the crumbling aqueduct.
Naming it “Others”, I hoped to imply that the figures in the foreground maybe be weary of what they’re seeing on the bridge. People are weary when they don’t know things about the others around them. They exist in this psychedelic landscape, with a diamond mountain range in the background, implications of technology that’s crumbling. Maybe it’s a post nuclear landscape, maybe it’s somebody’s fantasies in a virtual reality world they’re experiencing in an Oculus Rift.
IF: Tell us a little about your overall process as an artists. What are you thinking about when creating a piece? Are concepts something you plan and attempt to execute going into a new creation?
NB: Here are some questions that you could come back to me in five years, ask, and probably get a brand new answer for. This stuff is always evolving. Like I said, when I was finishing up grad school, I was working mostly in collage. This started with me making prints, silkscreens and others, and then cutting them up and reassembling these into larger landscapes. When I got out of school, I didn’t have access to all of the presses I did before. I moved into a studio in the building I live in. My landlord happened to have some space in the basement. That was 8 years ago and I’m still here right now, sitting at my laptop typing this. It’s not a huge studio, maybe around 130 square feet or so? I have some storage, but more importantly, I have room to paint. Really, the biggest constraint here is 7 foot ceilings, which limits work a bit, but not too much. I have a large 60″x90″ diptych I’m working on this afternoon behind me and a 60″x50″ painting on the wall opposite, so there’s room to work.
Getting out of school and not having access to all the printmaking equipment, I started painting more. At first I painted sheets of paper, cut and tore that up and made collaged paintings that way. Then I started painting more and more into the work, and now eight years later, it’s mostly painting with elements of collage. Maybe I said it earlier, but I do a lot of taping and stenciling directly on the work. The work I make now is a lot more mixed media. Acrylic is the base, but there’s a lot of spray-painting, leafing and other collage that goes into this. In the last year or two I started using a lot more holographic foils and stuff like that.
There’s definitely a process in the studio, but right now it’s a bit scattered. I have eight or nine paintings going right now, ranging in size from a few large wall covering paintings to some more medium sized work. I’d say 2 or 3 of these paintings are actively shelved. Maybe this is the other bad constraint with my studio. I have room for 2-3 things to be out at once. I wish I had room for everything to be up on a wall at once, but someday. I’m working on a few films that I want to use for silkscreens. Those all depict wooded areas where some of the trees are “glitching” out. I’m planning to print some of these on that holographic foil as a variant. One of the large diptychs I’m working on will also depict a glitched out wooded area. I made a painting last summer where I first started referencing this. These paintings are based around the wooded areas I hung out in when I was a kid in Ralston, Nebraska as well as wooded areas across the street from me, in Golden Gate Park. In the last nine months or so, I’ve started referencing screen glitches that you might see on a cracked phone or tablet. The work all has elements that tie it together, but there are different paths being taken.
IF: Your selection of materials is quite unique considering your medium. Tell us how you got into using these particular materials over the years. (Acrylic, Spraypaint, Goldleaf, Holographic film, Collage, etc.)
NB: Some of this was probably covered above, but I’ll clarify a bit more. Again, some of this grew out of necessity. I got out of school where I had access to lithography presses, really nice digital printers, exposure units that were much better than what I can do at home…so at first I just started painting on paper and using that. Paint felt really flexible to me at that time, especially acrylic. Materiality started to creep into what I was thinking about when I painted. Despite the fog that envelops this city, San Francisco is very vibrant. This really started to excite me. When I was buying paint, I’d see some of the other paints available outside of the cadmiums and the cobalt. Interference colors hit me first. These paints have a quality where if you paint them over a darker color, they shift on you. So I picked some of that up. I picked up some of the texture pastes and some of the stuff that has sand and stuff in it. I live five blocks off of Ocean Beach, so I started going down there and collecting sand, sifting it in my backyard and then mixing that in with paint to build texture. I’d paint some of this on paper, tear that up and reassemble it into bigger paintings.
When I stopped collaging so much, the interference colors stayed. But then I just started to build from there. One of the papers I use, Yupo, it’s a synthetic paper that blends a plastic and cotton together. It’s super slick on the surface, so when you paint on it, the paint will end up pooling a bit and drying weird. Early on when I was working with that, I started to play around with spray paint. And when you use spraypaint on that paper when it’s already wet, it really starts to get interesting. I was playing with this in probably 2009 or 2010 and getting super excited by the possibilities with this.
SFMoMA had had an Anselm Kiefer show a few years earlier, maybe 2009, and walking through that and seeing some of his work up close just kind of cemented this idea I’d already started to embrace that there aren’t limits with any of this stuff. Sometimes a painting is just acrylic on canvas. But sometimes you need to accent something, and maybe gold leaf will do just that. Or there’s a forest, and it makes sense to use bark from the eucalyptus trees across the street to make the trees. At this point, I want to use whatever gets the idea across best.
IF: When creating collages, where do you typically search for material?
NB: All over. The internet is big for this. Old books. Weird corners of the internet where you find weird pictures. Reddit is pretty huge for this, there are some weird subreddits where people post old photos they find. Weird photoshops. Whatever you want.
The materials that I’m cutting out and using in the work are mostly made by me. I use some stuff from old books and magazines, but fore the most part, I’m making stuff in my studio to cut up and use for collaged elements.
IF: A good bit of your work seems to be based around landscapes, particularly mountains – Are these based on your surroundings?
NB: Kind of? I think, technically, San Francisco sits on a mountain range, just a low level mountain range. I don’t have to walk that far to see the mountains just north of us in Marin, and same for the east bay. I grew up in Ralston Nebraska, which is a suburb. It’s a fairly flat place.
But when I was a kid, we would go to the Rocky Mountains. I still remember the first time we went there, I was maybe 9 or so? But it just blew me away. Like, I’d been up to Mount Rushmore, and that was cool, but the Rocky’s blew me away. I read a lot about mountains when I was a kid. And when I got older, I got really interested in how things work and science. Growing up I was smart enough to be in the top science classes, but I was never going to be a scientist. But I wanted to incorporate some of that into my work.
In grad school I read a lot of work on ecology and the environment. My wife & I moved to San Francisco for me to go to school, and I got interested in this new place. I’d lived in Nebraska most of my life. So I read about the history. I started reading about why San Francisco looks the way it does. Again, Ralston and Omaha are mostly flat. They sit right at the edge of the last major glacial period, so there are some wrinkles in the landscape, but not much. Reading about that lead me into thinking about how mountains get made. Subduction zones and all of that.
That interests kind of pervades and sticks. A lot of the vacations we take, we go to places where mountains do some weird stuff. Hawaii and Iceland, up around Yosemite. We’re going back to Hawaii in a few months. I’m sure I’ll come home and make more mountain paintings.
IF: Tell us about Caught In The Fall.
NB: In high school, almost everybody I hung around with were in bands. Even my girlfriend at the time was in a band. I wasn’t playing in a band, but I had a bass guitar and knew a little. I could play along with people, but man, I sucked at writing music. Mostly, my contribution to all of my friends making music was that I could help them silkscreen shirts. Or I could design something for them. I could make a painting for their album cover. We were just kids, not much else.
Then I got out of high school and started going to college at a smaller private university in a suburb adjacent to Omaha. A few of my friends from high school and a buddy of ours from out of town had been playing music for a few months at that point. Just playing around and doing Misfits and AFI coves, stuff like that. Kevin was singing for them, and he was basically living at my parents place with me at the time and said “We’re looking for a bass player”. Again, I wasn’t that great, but for what they were playing, I didn’t need to be. Luke lived out of town about 30 minutes in this little summer community called Cedar Creek, right on a lake. His parents even had a pontoon boat. So we would go out to Cedar Creek and play covers for a few hours. We had a big show at his place on Halloween and everybody had a blast, so we kept doing it. At this point we were writing some original stuff.
This was 2001, so it wasn’t a given that you could just record stuff. But Saddle Creek had taken off and gotten huge with artists like Bright Eyes and the Faint, so there were a ton of people we knew interested in recording who had four or eight track recorders. So we recorded a few songs and decided to do a few dates close to Omaha. We’d go up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and hook up with some people up there in the punk scene. Those people would encourage us to go out and do more shows and record more stuff.
We got super lucky at the time and got to do something that not everyone gets to. We were never huge, but we released a few albums and got to see our names in stuff like HeartAttack, which was super rad for us.
At one point things just kind of got stressful. There were four of us and out of the four, our drummer Aaron was easily the most talented. That shows, too. Again, he’s now in Bent Life who just released their first LP with Bridge Nine. I go and see them whenever they’re in the Bay Area, which is unfortunately not enough, and man, they just attract so many people. Back when we were touring, we were playing in basements for 50-100 kids on a good night.
It was because of that band that I got to see a hell of a lot of America. We had a good time when we were doing it.
IF: At least two of your artworks feature a Nintendo in them. Tell us a little bit about this.
NB: The first time I went over and saw my cousin David’s Nintendo, my life changed. I think it was 1987 and I was like, six. It floored me. He had a few games already, but we just played Mario because honestly, that was enough. I was born in 1981 and I think it shows. My childhood was spent with cartoons whose sole purpose was to sell me toys, so something like Nintendo was geared right at me.
As an adult, I still play video games, but maybe not as much as before. Mostly I stick to handhelds so I don’t take the TV over. I was there for the simple graphics of the 8 bit and 16 bit, then the conversion to 3D that came with the original Playstation and the Nintendo 64. I still have all of these old consoles in my apartment. So I work them in from time to time into these still life clusters. These systems are gateways, as far as I’m concerned. One of the paintings has a Nintendo 64 with a gold “Ocarina of Time” cartridge in the slot and is titled “Adventure Time” because, to me, putting that cart in the console when I was 16 meant I was going off to some crazy place to have some crazy adventure. These worlds informed the way I see the world. They kind of blur things, a bit. The static and noise that could arise from bad contacts on a cartridge. Screen tearing the starts to show up in more complicated 3D worlds. These types of effects are starting to come back in vogue. You have games now directly references the old effects and hang-ups of the previous technology. Some of those things show up in my paintings.
I’m working on a still life right now that, coincidently, will have a console in it. I’m debating between the Japanese Famicom disk system or maybe that weird Super Nintendo Playstation that showed up last year. That thing is super interesting to me. All of the weird vaporware and, I suppose, vapor-hardware of that time.
IF: Have you always wanted to pursue a career in art?
NB: This will be short, but yes. I don’t think I ever wanted to do anything else and I lucked out in that nobody ever pushed me to do anything else. My parents always encouraged me to draw and that’s a big part of what I did growing up. I never grew up.
IF: What role do you believe album art plays in the grand scheme of things, specifically in its goal to help portray and potentially sell an artist?
NB: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. Okie dokie, sure. But we all do this, right? Same with art; sometimes a really phenomenal album can transcend bad artwork. But it can take a lot of the artwork is just plain awful. When you’re a less mature group without a ton of backing, I think it’s always going to help having something that catches people’s eyes. It’s possible this might be more important than ever with digital stores and streaming. Our viewing and consumption habits have changed. If you’re on iTunes, or Google Play, and an album just has a plain cover and you don’t recognize the artist, you’re probably going to keep flipping. But if you come across something that stops you, catches your eye and you don’t recognize the musician, you might still give it a shot. It helps to have an arresting image that gets someone to take note.
If you’re Kendrick Lamar, you have a name behind yourself and you can drop an EP of scratch tracks that just has your name on the cover. But if you’re a smaller group, it’s probably going to be beneficial to find some sort of imagery that you think captures you. Maybe it’s something that just mirrors your vibe or maybe something that references the lyrics. Some bands do this really well. Look at Radiohead’s relationship with Stanley Donwood. Sometimes musicians and artists can become intertwined like that, and that just continues to add to the overall package.
IF: Do you anticipate doing more album art in the future?
NB: Always. I’m always down for doing stuff like this. A band out of LA, Mute Swans, just released their first EP last month with one of my paintings on the cover. I love to meet new people and hear what they’re doing. Occasionally somebody contacts me and things don’t line up, but for the most part, this is something I don’t see myself closing the door on. I’d work with authors or other creatives, too. I don’t see a real downside to any of this.
IF: What kind of music are you listening to while you create, or simply what music has been inspiring to you lately?
NB: I listen to a lot of stuff, and most of that is mood dependent. Some days in the studio, I might listen to a book on tape. I have a TV mounted the wall above my desk, so some days I just put the news on and focus more on the work. A year or two ago I listened to Podcasts all of the time, and then something happened and I lost interest in a lot of those. I have a few shows that I still listen to every week, but that’s really mood dependent.
Maybe I won’t list any particular albums, but here some musicians I listen to, both in and out of the studio? I always like to listen to My Blood Valentine, especially “Loveless”. This album has been inspiring me for a couple decades at this point. I’m a huge Nirvana fan and still listen to them a lot. Jenny Lewis had an album a couple years ago, “The Voyager” that inspired a lot of my work at the time and continues to. When I was in Omaha a few months ago I heard a Guess Who song on the radio that prompted me to listen to them a lot more recently. I like pop albums that are really, really tight, stuff like Taylor Swift’s “1989”. That album exists just to make you say “Yeah, this is really good”. It’s focus tested pop and there’s something really fascinating about that. Radiohead has been big in my studio for years. Tame Impala can set a mood when I get in the studio and don’t know what I want in the background. There’s an EP from Grave Babies that I like to listen to a lot. Really, it can range all over the place.
IF: The last sentence of your artist statement is “Everything comes from nothing, and nothing comes from everything.” What does this sentence mean to you?
NB: Once more, I’ll say that I’m not a scientist, so stick with me. This is more of a reference to the Big Bang. In the last year or so I have been pretty terrible with updating my website. I think there are only three or four paintings up there for this year and I’ve finished a lot more, probably 20-30. This is part of an old statement that I’m not using so much anymore. I think I actually got this particular phrasing from something I was reading on the Big Bang, but this would have been a few years ago.