The Creationists

Creating The Artwork of RUSH with Hugh Syme

September 30, 2020 Steve Waxman Episode 14
The Creationists
Creating The Artwork of RUSH with Hugh Syme
Chapters
The Creationists
Creating The Artwork of RUSH with Hugh Syme
Sep 30, 2020 Episode 14
Steve Waxman

Some of the artwork discussed in this episode can be seen on The Creationists Podcast on Facebook and Instagram.  

Hugh Syme is easily Canada’s most successful and recognizable album cover designer.  If, for some reason, you don’t know the name, you will definitely know the work he’s created for some of the world’s biggest artists including The Band, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Earth, Wind and Fire and Celine Dion, to name just a few.

Over the course of a career that has now spanned 45 years, Hugh has been nominated for 19 JUNO Awards (winning 4) and much of his work has been featured in volumes of coffee table books that highlight many of the world’s best album covers. But, it’s his relationship with Canadian rockers Rush that solidified Hugh’s reputation.  He has designed every Rush album cover since 1975’s Caress of Steel.  Hugh and I spent some time going over many of his career highlights and we began at the beginning…

***

Steve Waxman: How did your relationship with Rush begin?

Hugh Syme: I was in a band on the same label and with the same management as Rush and Max Webster and the Larry Gowan project was on at the same time, I think. And, I was doing covers for Max and Ian Thomas, my band, and I was called into the principal's office.  Ray Daniels was the manager and he called me in and asked me if I’d like to do a Rush cover.  And I remember distinctly thinking ‘Well, they’re not Genesis or King Crimson or anything but, yeah, why not. I’ll give them a shot,’ not realizing that 42 years later Neil Peart would coin the phrase “serving a life sentence” which became the subtitle of my eventual book called The Art of Rush. It was some kind of unwitting commitment that turned into a beautiful friendship and musical friendship, artistic collaboration and a lengthy, loyal alliance. 

Steve Waxman: Well, let’s talk about that.  It started with Caress of Steel. What is the collaboration process like and was it a collaboration from the very beginning? 

To see full transcript, visit imstevewaxman.com

I highly recommend that you take the time to visit hughsyme.com to see the wide range of artist styles on display including album covers, original paintings, graphics and drawings.

Show Notes Transcript

Some of the artwork discussed in this episode can be seen on The Creationists Podcast on Facebook and Instagram.  

Hugh Syme is easily Canada’s most successful and recognizable album cover designer.  If, for some reason, you don’t know the name, you will definitely know the work he’s created for some of the world’s biggest artists including The Band, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Earth, Wind and Fire and Celine Dion, to name just a few.

Over the course of a career that has now spanned 45 years, Hugh has been nominated for 19 JUNO Awards (winning 4) and much of his work has been featured in volumes of coffee table books that highlight many of the world’s best album covers. But, it’s his relationship with Canadian rockers Rush that solidified Hugh’s reputation.  He has designed every Rush album cover since 1975’s Caress of Steel.  Hugh and I spent some time going over many of his career highlights and we began at the beginning…

***

Steve Waxman: How did your relationship with Rush begin?

Hugh Syme: I was in a band on the same label and with the same management as Rush and Max Webster and the Larry Gowan project was on at the same time, I think. And, I was doing covers for Max and Ian Thomas, my band, and I was called into the principal's office.  Ray Daniels was the manager and he called me in and asked me if I’d like to do a Rush cover.  And I remember distinctly thinking ‘Well, they’re not Genesis or King Crimson or anything but, yeah, why not. I’ll give them a shot,’ not realizing that 42 years later Neil Peart would coin the phrase “serving a life sentence” which became the subtitle of my eventual book called The Art of Rush. It was some kind of unwitting commitment that turned into a beautiful friendship and musical friendship, artistic collaboration and a lengthy, loyal alliance. 

Steve Waxman: Well, let’s talk about that.  It started with Caress of Steel. What is the collaboration process like and was it a collaboration from the very beginning? 

To see full transcript, visit imstevewaxman.com

I highly recommend that you take the time to visit hughsyme.com to see the wide range of artist styles on display including album covers, original paintings, graphics and drawings.

Hugh Syme is easily Canada’s most successful and recognizable album cover designer.  If, for some reason, you don’t know the name, you will definitely know the work he’s created for some of the world’s biggest artists including The Band, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Earth, Wind and Fire and Celine Dion, to name just a few.


Over the course of a career that has now spanned 45 years, Hugh has been nominated for 19 JUNO Awards (winning 4) and much of his work has been featured in volumes of coffee table books that highlight many of the world’s best album covers. But, it’s his relationship with Canadian rockers Rush that solidified Hugh’s reputation.  He has designed every Rush album cover since 1975’s Caress of Steel.  Hugh and I spent some time going over many of his career highlights and we began at the beginning…


* * *


Steve Waxman: How did your relationship with Rush begin?


Hugh Syme: I was in a band on the same label and with the same management as Rush and Max Webster and the Larry Gowan project was on at the same time, I think. And, I was doing covers for Max and Ian Thomas, my band, and I was called into the principal's office.  Ray Daniels was the manager and he called me in and asked me if I’d like to do a Rush cover.  And I remember distinctly thinking ‘Well, they’re not Genesis or King Crimson or anything but, yeah, why not. I’ll give them a shot,’ not realizing that 42 years later Neil Peart would coin the phrase “serving a life sentence” which became the subtitle of my eventual book called The Art of Rush. It was some kind of unwitting commitment that turned into a beautiful friendship and musical friendship, artistic collaboration and a lengthy, loyal alliance. 


Steve Waxman: Well, let’s talk about that.  It started with Caress of Steel. What is the collaboration process like and was it a collaboration from the very beginning?  


Hugh Syme: No.  Most of my career, and I’m like most art directors, I’m selfish, I want to be creative, I’m in my own right. And, in the beginning, I think that the band was unaccustomed to what it took to do artwork for their careers.  You know, they were in the early stages of finding their way.  As was I. The one thing I liked about Rush, and I think that it was an unwitting feature of our relationship that would endure for our career, they didn’t know that they weren’t deviating from the norm as often as they could. They didn’t want a logo.  The management wanted a logo.  They like the idea of having an Aerosmith or a Van Halen type logo and I was thinking ‘I like when a band just creates the concept that’s commensurate with the title or reflects the title and the band’s information.’  I think that I took my cue from Pink Floyd and people like that who didn’t have a logo but they would have concept covers and each time a cover would surface it would have its own identity, it’s own font or its own type treatment. 


So, in the early stages, I was just left to do my own thing. I still had to describe what I was about to do. When I mentioned that I liked the idea of men moving pictures for Moving Pictures sometimes these glib, or seemingly glib comments, which I could immediately see and picture for myself were met with a bit of confusion or resistance even but I often had to say “Trust me, this is going to be cool.” It was certainly a courtesy extended to the band to describe what my intentions were but, in the very beginning with Caress of Steel and 2112 there were no expectations.  I was left to do the artwork and then I would deliver it and would never presume that they wouldn’t like it.  But, so far, they never resisted or sent me back to the drawing board. 


Collaboration began as we had more and more discussions about the content of the lyrics.  Because at the very beginning it was just responding to the title and I always did feel spoiled with Neil.  He was brilliant with coming up with great titles.  SignalsCounterparts. You know, Hold Your Fire. Everytime he would come up with a title, it was unlike any other band.  It just had imagery built into the words. I was spoiled and I was trusted by the band to do what I needed to do. Very few bands would have endorsed putting a nut and a bolt on an album cover for a title like Counterparts. But, I was admittedly inspired by the brave minimalism you would see on Discipline or Beat by King Crimson. So, I thought it was time, for example, to do a cover like that for Rush. But, eventually, it became a full fledged dialogue.  And yet, I would listen and go through the process of discussing arcs and themes and so on.  But I still went away and asked for the freedom to present what I think might work. I was never dictated to, which was great.


Steve Waxman: Can you give us an example of this discussion when you talk about themes or the arc of an album? What would you be given and then, when you go away would there be multiple versions of concepts that you would present to them?  Or are there multiple versions of concepts that you go through yourself?


Hugh Syme: No. I didn’t do what were considered, especially in the advertising world, comps. I didn’t do renderings and proposals. A lot of that was done in conversation. Neil was always visual and we would get through it. And I would have a book handy and sketch things to kind of indicate a rough idea. I admit to the fact that I was never a die-hard fan so I didn’t delve down into the lyrics and become a kind of Ayn Rand freak and become entrenched in the fandom of being a Rush devotee. A lot of times I would take the title.  I didn’t read lyrics as intently until the CD came along at which point one front cover became, when we lost the twelve inch canvas, we gained twelve or sixteen or twenty or in the case of Rush often forty canvases in the form of the form of the many pages in the CD booklet. Then it became evident to me that I could harvest imagery from specific lyrics which is what Neil and I would eventually enjoy doing together. We would pick the most poignant visual that would seem to be reflective or editorialize the words.  But in the beginning I would like the title Moving Pictures and I never read the lyrics but would do the cover based on that reaction.  Samne with Signals.  It wasn’t until we got into CDs that I got more serious about reading the content.  Even 2112, I think the only conceptual conversation we had was about the resistance of the federation to freedom of expression and how there was the red star of the federation and there was the hero. And I thought, well, we’’l have the hero pushing the red star away.  It was very literal. Little did I know that that became the icon.  Again, it was the unwitting and perhaps accidental but pretty effective icon that endured until now. 


Steve Waxman: I’m always curious about moments of inspiration.  I’m wondering if you remember the moment you had the thought of having that man there pushing the star.


Hugh Syme: I sort of do.  I was thinking about the fact that being creative you are pure.  You are who you are and it felt wrong to put a guy in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I thought that it would be much more pure to have this human individual, this creative soul pushing this mean red star of the federation away.  When I heard about the constrictions of that federation and the challenges of those that want to remain free and creative, it was kind of literal and I thought that we need to have that kind of confrontation and that confrontation just manifested itself in the naked guy pushing away the bad bad star. 


A similar kind of reaction happened on Hemispheres. We had Dionysis and Apollo kind of characters and it seemed right that the dancer be naked as opposed to being some guy in tights. I don’t really remember beyond that how those things occur to me. I think that probably describes what I was probably feeling. 


Steve Waxman: For Caress of Steel, was that image drawn specifically for the album?  Did you have that image beforehand? 


Hugh Syme: No, I never had pre-existing images for Rush. I have, admittedly, done artwork throughout my career. I don’t stand still.  As an artist I like to be creative and if I’m not working on an album cover at a given moment I’m also thinking of art galleries and other avenues of my art.  But in the case of Rush, it was always very specific.  And at that time I was just fresh out of art school.  I’d missed seeing M.C. Escher just by a matter of months.  He died not long after that.  I was a huge Escher fan.  I enjoyed and I grew up drawing.  Drawing was important to me. And pencil work.  My father was instrumental in gently instructing me.  He was a great draftsman himself.  He was a pulp and paper engineer but ee drew beautifully. I actually found some nudes of my mom that he had done and they were beautiful. And when I did a drawing I would get it. I understood light and shadow and shading.  I would do a section of a drawing that really worked and he would see the drawing and say “This is beautiful.  This is great.”  And then he would point to the periphery and say “So, we’re still working on this, aren’t we?” That was his kind way of saying, ‘you’re not done.’ But he wasn’t like some kind of tennis coach dad sending me back into my room to finish the work.  I felt that he was right and I felt that the process did require more commitment.  Through that he did teach me commitment and patience and diligence.  And now I’m a workaholic, which is all good. But, drawing wasn’t something that you could do, I discovered, in just a couple of days or one afternoon.  It sometimes took six weeks to finish a drawing. 


So, I wanted to bring that level of my then skill set to bear on a Rush cover.  I didn’t do the chrome lettering or the blue balloon that went around it.  Nor did I shift the colour to that brown. It was intended to be a graphite, a very Escher-esque cover. But the lesson learned in that whole experience was that AGI and, then Mercury Records, felt that the artwork was just a bit too retiring and too elegant.  They wanted something more rock and roll.  And so, they took it upon themselves to develop those elements. And we were all a bit shocked and that’s the point that Rush said to most efforts by A&R on the label level to not feel welcome into the studio when they were doing their music and, by the same token, they wanted me to be at every press check.  And they wanted management and the label to leave me alone and leave the band and I alone while we did what we did.  Again, that put us both in a pretty unlikely arena where labels really do like to have a hand in the trajectory of a band’s career. We all got to express ourselves as we felt appropriate for those projects and for that entity known as Rush. So, yeah, it was a lesson learned but I don’t look at that cover with disgust, I just don’t particularly care for the fact that it was invaded by outside forces. 


Steve Waxman: It seems to me as I’m looking at all of the album covers in sequence that a style for you really emerged.  My next question was going to be ‘What inspired with regards to the artwork for 2112’ because I’m thinking back to when Hemispheres came out, it seemed very much to be a graphic that would have been inspired by Hipgnosis and the stuff they were doing with Pink Floyd…


Hugh Syme: Right on point.


Steve Waxman: But with Farewell To Kings and on, Moving Pictures and what not, your artwork seemed to become more and more surreal until it became a very recognizable style.


Hugh Syme: I hope that it didn’t become recognizable in a predictable sense. I like to think that as their music evolved I like to think that I dared to evolve.  You know, Hold Your Fire was quite unique. Signals was completely ridiculous but it was a very effective cover.  And, when it came, it wasn’t an easy cover.  We worked hard at getting that particular image to come through as the solution for the word ‘signals.’ We can get to that in this conversation, if you cared to address that. But, as far as the evolution, Storm and Powell and George Hardie at Hipgnosis were definitely instrumental to mine saying to myself…


You know, at the time I was airbrushing Bauer hockey skates.  I was doing what emerging artists would do. I had an agent.  I had local Toronto ad agencies approaching me for different projects and it was all fine. But I looked at things like Hipgnosis’ work, even the early work that they did and I thought, it wasn’t envy, but it was an observation on my part that that amount of freedom must be beautiful. It must be a lovely thing.  So, being young and presumptuous, you automatically adopt these...you presume that those can be your own fate and sometimes belief manifests itself. So, I just went after that market.  Again, being on a label with Rush didn’t hurt. Doing Max Webster and Ian Thomas and eventually Rush.  Terry Brown's Klaatu. All of these local projects started approaching me and I eventually found that I was, in fact, migrating and moving in the direction that I once hoped to move. 


I’m not sure that Hipgnosis was around during Caress of Steel and 2112, quite frankly.  I think that those were just my own graphic solutions for the titles.


Steve Waxman: No, I’m not saying that I think that those two records had that influence but Hemispheres definitely did.


Hugh Syme: Yeah, you nailed it. I think when Hemispheres emerged, I was very aware of photo compositing which they did with The Nice with the red balls in the desert.  And, you know, improbable reality, that’s where I place two men shaking hands on a backlot in Hollywood, one of whom is on fire. That’s pretty brilliant stuff.  So I was definitely inspired and went for that kind of freedom of expression. 


Steve Waxman: I want to say that when I say recognizable style I’m also talking about a glib sense of humour that comes out, not in all of them, but certainly many in that middle period.


Hugh Syme: Yeah.  Permanent Waves, for that cover we were going to bring in sort of electro medical technicians and have each one of them do a brain wave reading and a heartbeat.  You know, get some sort of physiological reading on each of them and I was going to put each one of those graphs on the front cover. One for Geddy, one for Alex and one for Neil.  All very intelligent.  All very graphic and simple.  And then Synchronicity by The Police came along with three stripes of color and three strips of imagery.  And it just seemed too similar to what we were trying to do by having three rows of representative graphics.  So they kind of robbed our thunder or we just wisely didn’t do it because it was too close in similarity. So, it was tabled and I jokingly said ‘We could have a Donna Reed character with a home permanent toni hairdo walking out of a tidal wave with somebody in the background waving.  Neil and I came up with the improbable political faux pas of having printed 65,000 copies of Dewey Defeats Truman. We thought about the wave of political presumption being challenged by the eventual truth. Even though that was challenged by the lawyers at the Chicago Daily Tribune. 


By the way, that image was described and then kind of dismissed. I remember Geddy saying “Yeah, leave your name with the girl at the front door.  We’ll be in touch.” It wasn’t intended - you know, I liked the idea.  I could feel what we could do with that - but it really wasn’t the keeper. And about two days later, Geddy called me and said “You know that image of the tidal wave?  We like that.”  I remember at the time, not having the kind of resources I have today where I can find imagery and get a great shot of the Galveston hurricane that yielded that photo. It wasn’t as easy as going online and doing a bit of research. We didn’t have Google back then. So I tracked down the Time-Life photographer Flip Schulke and found a phone number for him, phoned him in Mobile, Alabama and his wife answered the phone saying “Well, he’s on the roof right now and he’s gotta get a tree outta the attic.”  And they had just had another hurricane. So, I eventually spoke to Flip.  He was known for strapping himself to phone poles and wait for the inclement weather to slam the coasts of Florida and the Gulf. But he was a trip. He loved the idea of having his work being associated with a band.  Despite his long and illustrious career with Time and Life, he very generously said ‘Yeah, you guys can use it. I have a great shot of a tidal wave hitting Galveston.’ So, he helped me solve a problem and I think I would have had a problem bringing to bear if I didn’t have that fortuitous contact. Or I would have found a wave but I was so grateful for that. 


Steve Waxman: On the actual album cover, is the woman’s dress coming out of frame as well?


Hugh Syme: Yeah, well that’s intentional.  Breaking the frame is a nice graphic device.  I like that.  That’s why I did it with the newspaper on the most current 40th anniversary box set that we did to commemorate Permanent Waves. I like it as a device.  Every once in a while I’ll use it.  It’s not so easy to do on CDs.  When you have a nice half-inch black frame or a reliable trim line, you know, manufacturing is imperfect so if you dare to have a frame around a piece of art, it had better be on a 12 ¾” square. The moment you try to control a frame on a CD booklet they’re inevitably going to trim it incorrectly and throw it off balance.


Steve Waxman: Do you want to talk a little bit about Signals now and how this image of the dog at the fire hydrant actually has something to do with Signals?


Hugh Syme: Well, we again went down the whole electroencephalogram kind of  route and we were all thinking how cool that would be and it didn’t manifest itself because of The Police.  So, we decided not to do it. You know, we had Marconi, Tesla-type imagery.  RKO Radio, that RKO logo at the beginning of RKO movies. We delved into all of the things that were representative of the word ‘signal.’ And the more I listened to… 


This is where we’re talking more and more about themes and so on.  They mentioned that one of the key songs was “Subdivisions” and I immediately started seeing - this was way before David Lynch - I was just struck with the idea of the creepiness of suburbia. The perfect green lawns and the keeping up with the Jones’ and so on.  So we talked about ‘signals’ and I thought about the Toronto signature red fire hydrant and green lawns. It was more of a graphic reaction on my part and then I thought ‘How appropriate it will be for a fire dog, a dalmation, to be sniffing the signals of territorial deposits of local dogs.’ So, you’re right, it was a glib but, we hope, a graphical effective pun which tied in nicely to “Subdivisions.”  It was a solution.  But, I do remember Ray, the manager, being in my studio.  I described it to him.  I said ‘It’s going to be very graphic. It’s going to be very effective.  A black and white dalmatian sniffing a bright red hydrant against a green lawn. And his face probably went white (laughing). In all honesty, I quote him pretty well “I don’t know what the fuck this has to do with rock and roll,” and he left my studio in a bit of a huff. 


And speaking of Storm, he had these wonderful books that were coming out through Tiger Press at the time called The Ultimate Album Cover Album. I think they were called something like that. And I had bought the first two, of course, because I was curious to see.  And I would see people like, what’s his name, the painter who did Blues for Allah? Phil Griffin (correction: Phillip Garris), I think his name was. So I’d see that on a page by itself and I’d get a pang of envy thinking ‘Oh, I’d like a page to myself.’ And then I turned the page and there was Permanent Waves as one of four images on a page.  So, I was not ignored but I wasn't allocated a full page in the first two volumes. But I was in both volumes and I was on several pages but the privilege of having a full page only came to pass when I bought the third volume and was leafing through it and found Signals.  So, Storm in his editorial wisdom gets it, likes it and wants it to be seen as a full page.  So, that became Ray Daniels Christmas present that year.


Steve Waxman: That’s terrific (laughing). As much as you are tied into the history of Rush, I do want to get to some other things here and I was wondering at what point did your album graphics work expand to international artists?  I know that you had done a lot of canadian artists to a certain point but then at what point did you go international?


Hugh Syme: Well, it kind of went national in a sense when Dogstar from Vancouver called me in to do a painting which I did for them.  I did an early project for Celine on one of her early albums called Unison. And Spencer Proffer, who I still have a long, long history with and who I just finished working on an illustration for. Graham Nash’s Our House.  It’s a book for children and I’ve done all of the illustrations for that.  And we just finished a book commemorating the ‘68 comeback special on NBC for Elvis Presley. So, we’re doing all kinds of different projects and have been for thirty some years. He had just finished producing something for Quiet Riot back then and also, another band called Kick Axe. They were being released through CBS and he had his own label that was distributed by CBS. So, he was in Toronto.  I met him.  I had done the cover for that project and he was a big fan of that kind of artwork and when I met him, he was the one that invited me down to LA. He put me into a really nice house with a convertible Mustang and said “I want you to work on some wok.” So I did a painting for a band called Isle of Man, a painting for Quiet Riot and I was eventually introduced to his ex-wife who was the manager, Trudy Green, who was the manager for David Coverdale’s then emerging band called Whitesnake. I also did a painting for that.  That I did up in Toronto. Actually, I began it in the U.S. but I finished it in Toronto. 

And so, that was the alliance then.  He was one of the first to say “Why are you going back to Toronto? I want you to mee John Kalodner.  I want you to meet these people.” Going to LA and meeting the people at Geffen, that began that relationship with Geffen because Sammy Hagaer, Whitesnake, Aerosmith - those bands were all Geffen. 


Steve Waxman:  I’d like to go through a few album covers that I feel are fairly iconic, that you’ve done. And you referenced one early on - the Aerosmith Get A Grip.  Please tell the story behind this. 


Hugh Syme: Well, I was at a meeting at Geffen.  You know, it’s all a bit of a tender issue.  When you’re in a meeting with the Creative Director and the Art Directors, sometimes Warner and Geffen would have lots of different Art Directors and everybody wants to do a Whitesnake or an Aerosmith including we less welcomed outside hirelings like myself. But you’re in a meeting and you're discussing concepts and it's a competitive world and I began to realize that. I was not naive about that but I realized that during meetings like that. Their then Art Director was talking.  Very much in vogue at the time were all of those Guess commercials and Guess print ads where they would have some very cut guy with no shirt and jeans putting gas in some nice collectible 50s era car somewhere on Route 66.  It was black and white, beautiful photography. And this art Director wanted to celebrate the fact that Steve and Joe were never in better shape.  They had come out of a pretty bad phase with drugs and so on.  They were very fit and had been in the gym. She wanted to have them tightening their belts as a representation of Get A Grip. And I looked and said ‘Politically, I wonder about the politics of that. I mean, yes, I know they are the Lennon and McCartney of Aerosmith but I wonder if that represents the band appropriately.’  The room kind of understood that I had a point. I didn’t mean that to be a rude dismissal of her idea.  I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t missing an opportunity.  And other people started joking, well there were all kinds of comments made about choking the chicken for Get A Grip. Which, needless to say, could have been a fun image. It was just someone choking a chicken. But, I knew that nipple rings were pretty in vogue at the time and I don’t know why I just said ‘Why don’t we have a cow udder.  We’ll brand the name of Aerosmith on the hip of the cow and we’ll just put a nipple ring in the cow udder. The room went silent and I thought that I’d blown it. And, suddenly, Kalonder said “I like that.  I really like that.” So, I did it as a result of that vote of confidence from John. 


Steve Waxman: (laughing) That’s fantastic.  And, how does the cow feel about having the nipple ring inside of it’s udder.


Hugh Syme: You ask the animal activists that were picketing on Sunset. I kid you not. Nobody seemed to get that this might have been done in photoshop. The same thing happened with Megadeath's babies.  There were people up in arms about hanging babies from a clothesline. 


Steve Waxman: Well, that’s the world you work in.


Hugh Syme: (laughing) Yeah.  Thank goodness.


Steve Waxman: Can you tell me about the painting that’s the cover of Whitesnake’s Serpis Albis?


Hugh Syme: Yeah.  Well, actually, I take credit for naming that album because there was no real name for the album.  I don’t know if the spine said Serpis Albis or not.  I forget but it was certainly built into the painting itself and I think that it was adopted as the name of the album. I don’t quite know why I felt that a mandela of sorts and heraldry - I think when I met David (Coverdale) I thought… Yeah, I do know. Meeting David, if you’ve ever met David, there’s a certain kind of - I used to jokingly call him Lord Coverdale because that was the presence that he had. Apart from his Richard Burton timbre in his voice, I think that he liked pomp and circumstance and I presumed that heraldry would speak well to his nature and his project.  Those kinds of emblems were a challenge for me so I designed it and sketched it and showed it to him and he loved it. And, again, I wanted to take as many opportunities, as rare as they have been in my career because they take so long, but I wanted to do it as a painting. That’s sort of where it came from. 


Steve Waxman: You talked about being in the meeting with Geffen talking about Get A Grip and the suggestion that it was a little politically incorrect with the guy’s tightening their belts but then you did the graphic for Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and, well, goodness gracious, there’s a lot to be said about that. Especially where the pie is located on the graphic.


Hugh Syme: Duly noted and, nice catch (laughing). I wasn’t discounting the sexual nature of a guy tightening his belt and the fact that these Guess commercials were pretty sexy photography.  There was a great image of the wonderful model from Germany…


Steve Waxman: Oh, Claudia Schiffer. 


Hugh Syme: Yeah, Claudia.  She did one of the ads and she was on her knees and the guy sitting in the frame had a pinstripe suit.  Sort of like The Godfather. But a nice $6000 suit and this girl on her knees and it’s Claudia. So this ad campaign was a shirtless man on Route 66 filling a girl's enviable 50s era collectible car.  I later found out that there were a lot of 14 year-old boys that liked Permanent Waves simply because the dress was blowing up. I didn’t think of it from a white panties fetish standpoint. I just knew that a little sex wouldn’t hurt. I mean, sex does sell if it’s done politly. “Cherry Pie” was a much more raucous band.  As was Great White. The being literally lifted on a big hook which I had made by a blacksmith down in LA. So, yeah, we’ve had some fun with the sex, drug and rock‘n’roll side of the idiom. 


Steve Waxman: So, where are you getting most of your influence from these days? 


Hugh Syme: It’s a bit like songwriting.  That’s a good question. I don’t really look at album covers anymore. First of all, there aren’t many to look at but every once in a while I’ll go into iTunes and go ‘That’s a pretty cool image.  That’s pretty modern.’ It’s hard enough with a finite number of notes in a scale to write an original melody - an original song. If I get too steeped in the imagery of my peers I might be tempted to further emulate.  And, again,  I admittedly say that the Hypgnosis people did affect my career trajectory, for sure. But, I don’t emulate Vermeer but I revere his lighting and his technique. Dali, of course. Dali was wonderful.  He definitely thought outside the box. I loved his painterly technique and I loved his lighting. A lot of my work, I think, relies heavily on strong lighting. I like to think more in a vacuum.  If a title moves me, I have to free myself to respond to the title and not so much to any given style.  I might, as a courtesy to a band say ‘What are your favourite covers?’ But it may not have any effect on what I end up delivering to them.  It just gives me a peek inside their tastes. If they are bands that are new to me and I don’t know who they are, I’ll certainly ask what they like. But it doesn’t affect how I end up responding to the title because that freedom is pretty dear to me.  Having a good title, allowing me to seriously or glibly or whimsically respond to that title has always been my favourite part of what I do. 


Steve Waxman: I just want to end it off with something that you brought up and wondered how you’re dealing with it these days which is the one inch album graphic that with have to deal with with regards to the digital service providers. Has it had an impact on what you’re designing?


Hugh Syme: Not really. I know that it serves a project well to be minimal and concise and clean and simple. It does serve, especially with the platforms that this artwork has to appear in.  But, I’ve actually been pretty lucky.  There have been a lot of bands that have been approaching me.  Even emerging bands, young bands - they want to do vinyl. They know that it’s in vogue right now and that it’s pretty popular. So, I haven’t had to dispense with all levels of complexity and subtlety because I do get to work to the twelve inch square still. But I’m always mindful of that journey from twelve to four and three-quarter inches square.  It has to translate. But, like I said, when the door closed on albums the window opened on multipage CD booklets. But, to respond to your question, I tend to just create what I think works. If it doesn’t work at four and three-quarter inches square every once in a while I’m a little disappointed to see I may not have served my client as well as I may have. But, it’s a cool piece of art and it stands on its own but it looks way better at twelve inches still. I try to keep the balance in mind but I don’t let it dictate the outcome of what I conceive of or work on as a cover solution.


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I highly recommend that you take the time to visit hughsyme.com to see the wide range of artist styles on display including album covers, original paintings, graphics and drawings.