Recently I met Luke Jarvis from Bella Union, a small indie label in London which represents artists and bands like Father John Misty, Ezra Fuhrmann, Fleet Foxes, Beach House, John Grant… You get the idea. Luke kindly gave me a bunch of records when he saw me, and after a quick chat it became apparent that he was actually the one who has the job of designing the backs of many of the sleeves, even though he wasn’t trained as a designer.
People always talk about the guys who design record sleeves and the artists who make the records, but the hardworking one pulling this beautiful collaboration together is a somewhat overlooked area of the music industry. With that in mind, I wanted to ask Luke about why bands don’t seem to care much about the back of an LP sleeve any more, how Bella Union works with artists to make the artwork for their records, and how he ended up stepping in to help.
How did you manage to land a job at Bella Union?
I started in 2009, beginning life here as an intern before becoming a full-time member of the team. In 2012 I started to handle production duties, liaising with bands on all things required to make their music into tangible thing that you can hold in your hands. At the same time I began helping with artwork bits wherever needed and that’s become a more permanent role, putting together tube ads, billboards, posters etc.
How many artists do you represent now, and how has that changed since you started, was it six years ago?
I’ve worked with a lot of bands since I started. There’s a core who seem to have been there since the beginning, a band called Dirty Three, who are one of the first releases we had. But since then, I don’t know how many bands have been and gone since I’ve been at Bella Union. Sometimes they stick around with us, sometimes you only work with a band for single or EP.
I like the idea of it being this family, and we definitely have that. There are a lot of core bands who we’ve worked with forever, and it’s been nice to see this really nice growth with them. Like Beach House for instance – to see them go from a small band playing to 200 people to selling out the Roundhouse in London.
In a situation like that, where you’re finding a really young band who’ve just started out, what’s the next stage? Is it your job to make them look good?
The aesthetic thing usually comes directly from the band for the most part. I feel like bands, even before they’re signed now, have an idea of all aspects of their aesthetic, from the way they dress down to their Facebook page.
"Everything we have done with the Flaming Lips has been really beautiful, special packaging. It’s never straightforward, and it’s always a nice thing to work on because it’s different."Luke Jarvis, Bella Union
So then when it comes to making artwork for that band, do they have quite a big say in how they come across? With Beach House, for example?
Yeah. I think Beach House especially. The last record they did with us had this beautiful packaging with a glow-in-the-dark sleeve with lots of very nice imagery in it and that all came from the band. Every single aspect of it. Even stuff like videos, they have a really strong say in the direction of that. I think that’s when it works well, when it’s a very clear idea.
But then when it comes to them being like “I wanna have a glow-in-the-dark sleeve with an embossed foil logo,” or whatever, doesn’t that cost way more money? Is there a budget per artist or band?
I mean if it’s a smaller band, that’s maybe when you have to look at it and justify how you do it. But we’ve done some really nice things with smaller bands. My Sad Captains’ recent album Best of Times had an open-up booklet. It had lots of different pieces of art by friends of the band, who’ve done an illustration or painting for each song, and then we had a fold-out booklet of them to go with the vinyl.
We’re flexible and I think that’s a good thing. We always like to be open to all ideas, as opposed to kiboshing them instantly. We’ll entertain most ideas! Even with the the new Father John Misty record we were like “this is kind of crazy.” We’d never experienced a sleeve that has a pop-up scene and plays music upon opening, but it was definitely a good thing to be a part of. It makes it interesting though. Everybody’s talking about the new Father John Misty album because of the pop-up thing he did in there.
And you said that Josh [Father John Misty] worked with the designer? Does he just find friends who make art and ask them to do the sleeve?
Yeah, the guy who made the painting on the cover was equipped in supplying things print-ready. That’s always handy because a lot of the time you’ll get an image taken from Google or something, and they’re like “can we use this?” You know, a 72 dpi pixellated image, and you’re like, “uh, that’s not really gonna work.”
So is it quite difficult working with artists who might not necessarily have an artistic background?
A little, yeah. For the most part there’s an awareness but there’s a lot of back and forth with all aspects of it. It can go on forever so we always set a deadline. Nothing is quick in the music industry. With the exception of maybe a new Radiohead records where they make it and it’s available to buy on Monday, but even this would require a long old process behind the scenes.
But for a lot of bands they make a record, and then they stew on this thing for like six months, and then by the time it comes out they despise it. And then they have to go on tour and play it. We like to have everything in place about four months in advance of the release date, and that leaves maybe a month in which you can iron everything out, and have that conversation about any amendments, any changes.
"We’ll entertain most ideas. Even with the Father John Misty record we were like, 'this is kind of crazy.'”Luke Jarvis, Bella Union
I had no idea it was that long!
It makes it very stressful as well. Because there are people with who things seem to come in last minute. Like, everything we have done with the Flaming Lips has been really beautiful, special packaging. It’s never straightforward, and it’s always a nice thing to work on because it’s different. It’s always a bit chaotic, but that seems to fit with the personality of their band.
When was the first time you ended up working on the album artwork for someone?
I’d always had an interest in the design element of things and had been putting together posters for Bella Union shows and online banners for our releases. There had been occassions when bands had certain images or ideas for their artwork, but nobody to help them put this together as an entire package, so I offered my services. One of the first things I did was a sleeve for a special John Grant Rough Trade bonus CD, he takes lots of photographs so he was like, “this is what I want for the front cover, this is what I’d like for the back, there’s these three images, can you maybe mock up the back with all three?” There was already a colour scheme running through the whole thing, it was tied in with his album “Pale Green Ghosts,” so I made it pale green… And then it was just a case of laying that out.
After that I worked with him on a live BBC album that he did with the Philharmonic Orchestra. There was a portrait photo and then I messed around with that and chose the font on it. It sounds so casual. And then his old band The Czars, did a “best of” recently as well, and it was the same thing. He had lots of imagery based in Denver, so there was lots of nostalgia there, and he had imagery he wanted to use.
"We always set a deadline. Nothing is quick in the music industry. With the exception of maybe a new Radiohead records where they make it and it’s available to buy on Monday."Luke Jarvis, Bella Union