In 1980 U2 released their debut album, Boy. What’s remarkable about that album is that as soon as you mention it to people with even a passing knowledge of the band, an instant thought is often of the iconic cover, the black and white close up of a young lad. So simple and affecting, it has stood out ageless from what was a golden age of album covers. 29 years later the designer Steve Averill, along with his business partner Shaughn McGrath as the design firm Four5one, still designs for the band who began as mates on the Dublin punk music circuit in the late ’70s (Steve was in The Radiators From Space) and now are, as well you know, the Biggest Band In The Worldâ„¢.
State sent our art director along to get all design-nerdy with them in their studio. Shaughn was finishing off tour merchandise for the band, as well as the sleeve for the new -I’ll Go Crazy…’ single and Steve (a huge country & western fan) had just finished an album cover for Paul Birch in Nashville. We started talking to Steve about the processes, tales of design groupies and eventually found out what the band (probably) paid him for the design of the Boy sleeve.
So Steve, for all the designers out there who get no more than a few days to work on something for their friends’ band, what’s the process like working with U2 and the huge machine that they have become?
As the band has become more successful, you tend to get more time and notice. The band go into the studio to start to work on an album and it might be a year and a half, or two years before they emerge at the other end of the project. A process of conversation happens over that period of time, whereby you probably listen to some very early music and you talk about where the music’s going, what they want to achieve, and from that you build up a picture of where the graphic sensibility should be alongside the music. Quite often, that changes as you go along. You start with one idea in your head because you’re hearing a certain type of music that’s quite raw and by the end of the mixing process and the various layers, it becomes something quite different, so you work that through in a different way.
Was this always the case?
In the early days it was the same as any band. You got 24 hours to come up with a sleeve. But now, on average, when it comes to presenting the finished ideas, you’d like to have a period of a couple of weeks to work idea through. It generally happens quite quickly.
Do you discuss ideas or visuals with the band first, or email them visuals?
With U2, because of the nature of what it is, it tends to go back and forth with ideas first. Most times when there’s a major presentation of ideas, you go and physically present to them with mock-ups.
Do the record company have a say on the visuals?
It’s the band’s approval. We don’t present to anyone else other than the band and management. That’s the luxury they’ve had since the early days. Whatever way their deal is structured, in a sense they are the client. The record company aren’t as important and that isn’t often the case. Quite a lot of situations where you’re working on an album cover, you don’t often meet the band. Your client is the record company and they are dictating to you how they see the record cover being.
The closer you are to the people making the music, the more creative your solution’s going to be. It’s the ideal way. I’ve had situations where bands come into the studio with more or less a Letraset type catalogue and a Pantone colour book and say -that’s the way I want it’. There’s no fluid thinking. So you kind of say, -Well if that’s what you want, go straight to a printer’. What’s the point of coming to a designer if you’re cutting that person out of the creative process? That does happen more often than you expect. You know when you look at it, you could do a lot better than what they have but they’re dictating the situation. But when you’ve already started a project, you have to find a compromise whereby you convince them that they need to do something a bit more interesting.
It doesn’t always work and there’s been a number of sleeves that you have to walk away from and say, -OK, at the end of the day it’s your sleeve, you’re paying for it and it’s what you want but I don’t think it’s the best option’, though a lot of those would have been early in my career before I learned to just talk people around. Sometimes you can turn them. One case was the photograph on the inside of War, I argued with the band that it was the only picture that lived up to the title because it looked like four soldiers freezing on the Russian front. We argued and went on for three or four hours until early in the morning and the band said, -Look, you’ve argued with such conviction that we’ll go with it’.
With the head-spinning speed that the way people source music has changed over the last five years, where do you see the role for designers in this new age?
The sales figures say people will still buy the standard priced, cheapest format. That way, they can put it on their computer or do what they want with it. But it’s still the older market who are interested in having a physical album. And with some editions of the No Line… albums, there’s an Anton Corbijn DVD and it’s just a visual experience that goes along with the music, not a standalone film. Neil Young’s done it with Chrome Dreams: there’s a DVD that goes along with the album that’s just got ever-changing close-ups of rusted cars. People are experimenting with it. It’s part of the challenge for us.
I have to ask, has this link with U2 ever attracted design groupies?
Certainly in the ’80s, I had to go ex-directory because I’d get all sort of phone calls at all sorts of odd hours from people saying -I’m staring at your sleeve now. I think you guys are awesome’. It’s a compliment in one sense but it’s kind of frightening when it’s 3am and this stoned person is telling you what he thinks the U2 sleeve really means.
At this point,State drags Shaughn McGrath away from the tour merchandise for a few more questions…