Joakim Haugland’s never understood what people mean when they say you should never judge a book by it’s cover. For the past 25 years, Joakim’s been responsible for releasing some of the best looking – and sounding – albums around through his much-loved, Oslo-based imprint Smalltown Supersound.
“To me the combination of music and artwork is very powerful," says Joakim. "The artwork sets the tone for the music. If it’s done right, it can explain the music. Sometimes I like an album even before I have heard it because of the artwork. The artwork leads me into liking the music,” Joakim tells us, on the eve of the label’s quarter of a century celebrations. “This of course doesn’t happen often. But sometimes it does.”
Almost every sleeve released on Smalltown Supersound — who’ve put out records by the likes of Kelly Lee Owens, Prins Thomas to DJ Harvey’s Wildest Dreams, and spanning everything from weirdo-jazz to extended disco fantasies via rugged rock’n’roll revivalism and space-age electronica – is done by Kim Hiorthøy. “We are close friends so we discuss the artwork for the label a lot. Most of the time we agree. But we also disagree. These discussions are the backbone of the label,” Joakim tells us.
To celebrate that big birthday milestone, we asked Joakim to talk us through five record covers that he feels best define where Smalltown Supersound has been, where it’s at now, and where it’ll be going in the future.
Lindstrøm: Where You Go, I Go To
Joakim Haugland:The music on this record was extremely cosmic and out there; sort of like a prog-disco album. Which means you’d expect it to come in a sleeve full of stars and planets and spaceships. So we twisted it and gave viewers a photo of a guy smiling on the front. People usually try and look sexy and mysterious in photos most of the time; it’s rare you simply see someone smiling.
Kim and I shot the photo for a cover on a Saturday night in his studio. I was just holding up a piece of paper behind Hans-Peter (AKA Lindstrøm), Kim shot it, and we all agreed it was the last thing you’d expect for an LP that kicks off with a 27 minute long opener. I think it did well because of the cover – it’s really inviting. He’s made a difficult album but he’s not trying to be smart. He’s honest. It’s an honest, unusual sleeve.
Prins Thomas: Principe Del Norte
JH: It’s one of the few covers in the last year that Kim hasn’t done, but Kim discovered Jacob Grønbech Jensen, who did work on it. They met at a lecture in Sweden or Denmark, and struck up a friendship over email.
During this time Kim was making a feature film, which made it hard for him to produce the amount of covers he’d been getting together. I thought, “What the fuck are we going to do?” Kim thought it would be best of Jacob took some control. “I trust him,” he told me, “he understands Smalltown Supersound.” So Kim worked on Principe Del Norte and sent it over to Kim, who didn’t think anything else needed to be done with it. I love, again, how it doesn’t quite reflect the music within. It could be anything.
Neneh Cherry: Broken Politics
JH: I’m really into the art world. It’s so important to me, and I’ve always known that when it comes to records, artwork is the secret weapon. Anyway, with the Neneh record, I’d worked myself on her previous LP and got the understanding from her crew that this time around they wanted to produce something themselves this time around.
I felt like I was losing a bit of A&R control. I needed to be in control of this thing but they’d decided on well-known photographers. I got frustrated. And then I had the idea of Wolfgang! So I emailed Neneh and she said she’d think about it – to get me away, I think. But she emailed him to make me happy. He very quickly answered and said yes.
When it happened – oh my god, we have Tillmans! He can’t go wrong. He’s great at whatever he does. I met him the day after the shoot and he’s a lovely guy. That photo was taken right outside Neneh’s house. You see there’s a car coming – in all modern artwork they take away the cars! Look at What’s the Story Morning Glory by Oasis, I knew they took the people away!
Sunburned Hand of the Man: _ Fire Escape_
JH: I’ve always been a big fan of the Japanese band Boredoms. In fact, I’m now a good friend of Eye, who is the leader of the group. I stage-dived on top of him at a festival years ago and I’ve loved him ever since. I really liked the sleeves he made for Boredoms records, so I asked him to work on this. This is a really crazy record and I needed something special for it. So, I thought, why not ask Eye? He might not always be easy to work with but he makes the most crazy art there is – and that style fitted this music.
Yoshinori Hayashi: Ambivalence
The future of Smalltown Supersound’s visual identity? That’ll be me and Kim, because he’s the best. We like the same books and films and music so we talk about all that and I can explain things to him. Other graphic designers maybe don’t pay as much attention to the music. Kim understands everything.
The reason I picked this record was because it happened really quickly. Kim made it in just a few hours. He didn’t think he’d like the photo he took, but I loved it. It feels like a minimalist album from the 70s or something, like an avant-garde Steve Reich record. The album’s crazy, and cover’s calm.