How the art of PC Music revolutionised a visual world for pop music and beyond
Speaking to A. G. Cook, Hannah Diamond, Timothy Luke and more, we unearth the long history of PC Music's internet-orientated aesthetic.
So often is the phrase “cultural reset” touted today that we regularly lose sight of the genuine moments which ruptured the zeitgeist. I’m talking about moments of rupture powerful enough to release tremors felt by the culture years after first breaking ground. One such cultural reset belongs to the record label and art collective PC Music. Starting in 2013 by musician and composer Alex “A. G.” Cook, the “DIY” label came onto the scene with a play on the visual language of 2000s minisites, and the glossy CGI-laden stock photos of popular advertising. The reappropriation of glossy hi-fidelity imagery was already being seen in the contemporary art world at the time (most noticeably by the collective DIS), but A. G.’s desire to take these aesthetic queues further into the virtual realm set it apart from the rest. “I was born in 1990, so I’ve got distinct memories of custom-coded GeoCities and Angelfire sites and elaborate Neopets guilds, as well as point-and-click games like The Longest Journey and The Neverhood,” A. G. tells me when we sit down to talk about the label’s early days. “By the 2010s, virtual space became much more defined by apps and social media, and I remember feeling nostalgic for that previous version of computer games and the internet, one that was a bit more unpredictable and DIY.”
Ever since the 2013 debut, so much about PC Music has already been said, discussed, and dissected across the internet that it’s hard to know where to even begin. In Dazed’s 2019 retrospective of the label, the magazine heralded PC Music as “the most exhilarating record label of the 2010s.” Whilst undeniably true, it summarises a more acute problem with the discourse over PC Music since its conception. It is, of course, the most exhilarating record label of the 2010s – but perhaps just as importantly, it is the most exhilarating visual art collective of that same decade.
There is no denying that PC Music’s aesthetic identity has always been synonymous with its pop and internet-orientated sound. “There’s always a discussion about how divisive PC Music was, but I think the visual side was received quite well, and explained the label’s musical aims pretty efficiently,” A. G. explains. “For me, it was important that each artist on the label would have their own specific visual aesthetic, and I spent a lot of time encouraging variety rather than something that could be easily pigeonholed.” A. G. is right in that the visual was generally received quite well – if you’re willing to look beyond the storm of confusion, criticism, and ignorance that plagued its sonic output of the time. It seemed, from the onset, many branded PC’s artistry as weird or kitsch parodies of pop. But, A. G. was always committed to crafting serious tributes to a culture he took quite seriously.
When I speak to the flurry of artists and musicians involved with PC Music, each conversation seems to underline PC’s commitment to its aesthetic and sonic output as entirely genuine and innovative. “PC Music has always had simple, strong, high fidelity imagery,” says Max Schramp, one of the co-founders and designers at Parent Company, a design studio that has been creating visuals and graphics for PC Music since 2018. “The label’s definitely always been home to visual art as much as music,” adds Umru Rothenberg, co-founder and designer at Parent Company, who released his first EP with PC Music as Umru in 2018. “I think PC has a strong sense of what imagery suits the label’s image and musical output without limiting the artists’ creative direction.” Parent Company’s own visual output is ostensibly impressive, employing “futuristic maximalist design that embodies tactile and emotional responses across all fields,” as states its own mission statement. “We dominate the somatosensory system,” it adds.
Somatosensory domination and futuristic maximalism are two key components of the kind of visuals and aesthetics that can be sourced from the success of PC Music’s original visual output back in the early 2010s. Emma Segal-Grossman, one of the designers at Parent Company, agrees as much. “We’re always finding that A. G. and PC have often, literally years ago, already explored the same ideas we think are interesting and funny now,” she says. Parent Company seems to only be expanding a universe which gave birth to them. When I touch on this with A. G., he brings up an astute array of comparisons to the universe-building nature of PC’s visual structure. “I always loved projects like Gorillaz and Daft Punk where the music was very overtly connected to a specific world of imagery, but I like to think that we're actually a lot closer to that reality, like a reality where every band is a cartoon and every DJ is a stylised robot,” he says. “When I look at Adele or The Beatles, I see something equally constructed and mediated, even if it’s slightly more subtle.” It’s a fascinating point of view, one which leads him to the conclusion that PC’s visuals operate more as “a secret door connecting the mainstream and the underground” than anything else.
“It's funny because when you think about the millennium and all the imagery and the aesthetics around that time, people called that futuristic when actually it was just the present”Hannah Amond
Of course, in the art world, the aesthetic landscape of PC Music was seen as a perfect blend of pop futurism, utopianism, and satire of accelerated capitalist consumerism. Contemporary art museums even started taking note of the aesthetic. But, as time has gone on and the label’s visual output has evolved, it’s clear that PC Music’s aesthetic was never intended to be about the future of art. It was always about the present. One artist who always understood this is Hannah Amond, more commonly known under the PC roster as Hannah Diamond.
“It's funny because when you think about the millennium and all the imagery and the aesthetics around that time, people called that futuristic when actually it was just the present,” Hannah tells me when she sits down to chat in the midst of finishing her second album. “I think often what makes things seem futuristic is when something is aiming higher, or pushing something forward. Maybe that’s why PC Music got described as being futuristic.” Hannah was one of the original artists signed to the label back in its early DIY days and remains one of its most recognisable champions to date. Yet, whilst a pop star in her own right, Hannah’s work has always been equal parts visual as it has been sonic. Her debut amassed a flurry of confusion from fans and critics, thanks to her ultra retouched pseudo-Y2K glossy images on singles and EP releases.
“For me, I feel like my memories of when it all began conflict in some ways,” Hannah says. “It was a really exciting time because that was like a camp of people that were excited by it because I feel like not many people were really making images like us at all.” She’s right: the super-polished and super-DIY approach to the boundaries of retouching were bold and daring, especially for a label that was to be taken seriously in the industry. Many, however, believed Hannah to be the fake “think piece” project of A. G. Cook (similar to the rumours circulating about PC-adjacent producer Sophie Xeon at the time) hiding behind the crystallised avatar of Hannah Diamond. But, the truth was much further than that. “At the start, I really felt people discredited me and took away the agency that I have with my work,” she says. “So with [my debut album] Reflections and the visual body of work I put out with it, I wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
Looking back from 2022, it’s easy to see Hannah was actually one of the individuals crafting pop aesthetics that is commonplace today. But, Hannah’s visual journey began much more quietly. She was originally in fashion communication, looking to the forgone ad campaigns of clothing brand Miss Sixty for artist inspiration. “Being a visual artist was the main thing I was doing before music so for me music was another exciting way that I could channel more of creating an entire visual world,” she adds. The more we talk, the more I notice Hannah ease into a gentle confidence, remaining humble yet concise and clear about her artistic intentions from the beginning. “My music with PC started developing in tandem with me developing my artistic style as a visual artist,” she says.
Hannah met A. G. shortly after he graduated from studying music, and describes him fondly as a “kindred spirit” who immediately understood her visual perspective. “I was fascinated by big budget pop music videos like Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass and Britney’s Hold It Against Me, which felt otherworldly but almost within reach,” A. G. says. “With all sorts of software becoming more accessible, I really became interested in how ambiguous something with high production value could be.” Together, they were both fascinated by the celebrity aesthetic and, namely, its crossover into advertising. “A. G. was looking at making pop songs for friends and thinking about friends as a celebrity kind of idea. And when we met, I was doing the same thing but with photos. I was taking pictures of my friends and making perfume campaigns with them.”
“Because for me, it’s always genuinely coming from a place of wanting to communicate a specific feeling of mine, and that aesthetic is something that I've been working on my whole life.”Hannah Amond
It’s not just her background in fashion that led Hannah to carve out her visuals. She’s also a skilled photographer and graphic designer in her own right, and constructs all her own visuals (album/EP covers, logos, gifs, website, merchandise) from debut to the present day. She’s even helped create the visuals for other artists, such as PC Music star Namasenda, and Hyperdub-signed artist Klein. When I attend Hannah’s gig in Vauxhall, I can tell by the array of on-stage visuals and outfit pieces that she’s incredibly thorough in her visual output. It’s no wonder that today she’s in-demand for her visuals as much as she is for her music. Most interesting, though, is how Hannah recalls a different early reception to her visual work than A. G., a reception she describes as frosty. “It always surprised me when people said that the PC music aesthetic was ironic and ingenuine,” she explains. “Because for me, it’s always genuinely coming from a place of wanting to communicate a specific feeling of mine, and that aesthetic is something that I've been working on my whole life.”
Whilst naysayers and confused consumers were plentiful, the cult following of dedicated and appreciative fans overwhelmed them, and A. G. wanted to keep on catering to them. Both Hannah and the trio at Parent Company frequently recall PC Music’s history of creating websites of which Hannah helped in-part to make, (what she says was “inspired by the famous art project Mouchette”), as did Parent Company with A. G.’s solo ventures. “In the years leading up to PC Music I got very into early net art people like Jodi, Olia Lialina and Mark Napier,” A. G. says on the subject of minisites. “There was also a wave of digital artists like the Computers Club crew who were re-using old tools and formats in quite a cheeky way that I admired.”
The creation of minisites proved to be a magnet for graphic talent, and the launch of Christmas 2.0 – a website hosting a Christmas-themed mixtape from PC Music, gone but not forgotten – is how designer Kim Laughton first began working with the label. “I made a webpage about the idea of an IVF immaculate conception, something that looked like a homepage for a company that provided lifestyle fitting GM babies,” Kim says. He’d go on to make PC Music’s iconic QT and EasyFun visuals, two of the rare times the label was making a clear and direct parody of brands (energy drinks and EasyJet, respectively). The EasyJet graphics were shut down by a cease-and-desist, but the QT logo and graphics lived on. “The QT logo started with intersecting 3D letters that I think A. G. found in a hardware shop,” Kim tells me of its origins. “I made a render of that and then Simon Whybray made a vector for the logo and did the other can label design. The intent from the beginning as far as I understand was to be as clean, polished and corp as possible with the QT project.”
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Kim Laughton: DISown Radio (Copyright © PC Music, 2022)
The websites Kim and Hannah originally worked on are indicative of the large fandom PC Music has generated by way of its visual output. Longtime PC Music collaborator and multimedia artist Aaron Chan agrees as such. He explains to me that “PC-related visuals are usually tailored in a way for people that didn’t know they wanted it, but they actually really want it,” which is why the endless generation of content is so key to the label’s graphic landscape. But, to understand why the specific aesthetics of PC resonate so well with its target audience – and why they always have – I approach graphic design juggernaut Timothy Luke. Immensely talented, and often imitated, Timothy first started doing graphics for PC Music when A. G. asked him to help come up with ideas for his work with Charli XCX on her “soft reboot” as an artist in 2016 with EP Number 1 Angel. “I think people appreciate pop being interrogated non-cynically,” Timothy explains to me. “More broadly and vaguely, I think people enjoy pop things which are made well in some universal sense, and I think PC has always been about that end.”
Timothy’s portfolio for PC is considerably vast, and his exciting, innovative, and fresh eye for graphic design has been a welcome addition to PC Music since it entered its second era. “Rather than being prescriptive with a specific brief, I think we've always been quite over the top in looking at and thinking about all lots of reference points at once, and generally sharing an interest in really extreme and formal visual ideas,” he tells me. “Coming in I really resonated with the visual language and sensibilities of the PC project, the celebration and manipulation of extreme pop ideas and aesthetics, and the various modulations of reference points from things we shared growing up.”
Talking to Timothy is quite exciting, but that may be my bias – he’s one of my favourite graphic designers working today. Asking him about the technical approaches he brought to PC illuminates how the label (namely A. G.) was operating with visuals back in 2016. “What I felt like I could bring to the table was my systems orientation and interest in clear and effective graphic devices and imagery,” he says. “PC quickly became for me an avenue to explore possibilities in visual identity, structure, and output.” One of his favourite projects to date is from one of PC Music’s founding artists, Danny L Harle, and his 1UL EP in 2017. “There are a few devices in there that manifest certain interests of mine in a clear way – in particular the meandering laser lines that function both as a visualisation of each track’s melodic movement as well sigil-like icons,” he explains. “I enjoy that kind of puzzle logic and extreme formality.”
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Timothy Luke: Easyfun, Be Your USA (Copyright © PC Music, 2022)
Timothy is also largely responsible for the new-and-improved PC Music logo, an iconic symbol to many of its fans. But, it was A. G. and his friend Rory Gleeson who first came up with it. “I took the PC Music logo really seriously, and ended up having it designed by my friend Rory Gleeson who had a lot more experience than I did,” A. G. tells me when I ask him about the logo’s history. “I was really adamant that the logo should be #0000ff blue, the default hyperlink colour, and we looked at a lot of built-in HTML symbols to find the shapes that were used for the P & C.” Taking the idea of Personal Computer Music very literally, A. G. describes how it felt “amusing to make a logo that was very dictated by what a web browser could display”. The logo itself “was truly designed to exist online”. The logo has seen variations across the years, from one with a Kochi Gothic font that Rory made, to A. G.’s own 3D adaptation of the flat PC symbols that is quite commonplace for the label today. “When I worked with Timothy Luke to tidy up the PC Music logo, we finally did the obvious thing of integrating the P & C shapes into PC Music, and really doubling down on the flat shapes, while still sticking to that #0000ff blue, which really became the label’s signature colour,” A. G. adds.
The more I talk to everyone at the helm of PC Music’s visuals, the more I realise that the label and A. G. Cook have always cultivated a space for artists to be unrestrained and free in what they want to create. In 2014, Hannah and her close friend/mentor William E. Wright had launched Diamond Wright, an “image-making” studio that PC music integrated into its world pretty quickly. “William and I were working together with him doing creative direction and me doing photography, and we made a lot of the very early PC music artworks together like that,” Hannah says. “Especially the ones for my Every Night cover and the Sophie stuff.” Whilst Diamond Wright eventually dissolved, the two teamed up again recently to work on PC Music signee Namasenda and her mixtape Unlimited Ammo.
There’s a persistent “family” vibe that pulsates through PC Music, and it’s as evident in its visual world as it is in its musical one. Longstanding collaborators such as Aaron Chan and Daniel Swan are further testaments to this. Both have been working with PC Music to create graphics and live-show visuals since 2013, and Aaron even fondly describes Daniel as “the godfather of PC Music visuals” when we speak. They have, and continue to, make content they love in equal measure to their fans. It’s a quality which breeds unprecedented levels of innovation in graphic and design that the label maintains to this day.
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Parent Company: PMF (Copyright © PC Music, 2022)
When I finally broach the topic of PC Music visuals being disseminated and appropriated by every mainstream artist today with Hannah, she takes a long pause. Then, in her always-positive demeanour, she offers a refreshing take on her part in the legacy. “It’s definitely cool to be a catalyst in some way, and maybe some of us were the first people that were starting to think in those terms,” she says. “But there must have been other people thinking like that too at the time, you know?” For Hannah, it’s always been a sign that people enjoyed the energy and excitement within pop music that PC Music was bringing to the front of its visuals, especially online. “Ultimately, the further it travels the more open people will be to receiving the things that we make and we do,” she adds, referring to the current mass of discourse surrounding the hyperpop genre. The irony discourse has once again surged, this time encompassing Charli XCX, Sophie, and 100 gecs, although less heavy on the visuals. “At the start, it was quite a small niche group of people that were really into what we did. Now, it’s blown up. It’s exciting.”
So, what exactly seems to be the constant push-and-pull factor of these visuals? It’s still hard to tell, but A. G. believes it lies squarely in the label’s original intentions: juxtaposition. “I always wanted something universal and easy to understand, but also idiosyncratic and obsessive,” he explains. “I really think those connections are there, and it’s in some ways the driving force behind a lot of my musical and visual output.” When I press for more, A. G. doesn’t disappoint. In his usual deeply genuine and unpretentious candour, he leaves me with a line I’ll be thinking about for days to come: “Everything shares the same flat space and can be dragged over or instantly replaced with something else. In the end, a lot of meaning comes from juxtaposition, the tension between real and fake, hard and soft, loud and quiet, and so on.”
Timothy Luke: PC Music, Uploading (Copyright © PC Music, 2022)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.