Words and interview by Kevin Muente, March 2021
Recently I sat down with artist Simon Fowler via Zoom from London. Fowler was working on his recent print for Lori Goldston's new album, 'High and Low'. From an early age he's been inspired by music, which drives his commitment to make high quality album cover art.
Kevin Muente: Could you tell me where you're from?
Simon Fowler: I'm from North and East London, and I'm currently in East London.
KM: How's everything going with the lockdown and the pandemic? How are you coping with that?
SF: I've been kind of living this lifestyle for years already, so I feel well versed in the reclusive nature of being an artist. That being said, the pressures of the restrictions on just being vaguely social and seeing people has been quite testing, so it has definitely affected the psychology of things, I think, but I'm generally fine, just quite a lot of work to do and, yeah, just getting on with it.
KM: How did you become an artist?
SF: Well, my family is very creative, so I think I was always spurred to just investigate my interests and follow things I find interesting in a creative way from a young age. Also, my brother is a musician and was in the London sludge doom metal scene in the late 90s, and that put me in close contact with underground bands and musicians and bands like Black Flag. That was like a huge, huge inspiration to me as a teenager and I was like, well, I want to do artwork for bands, man. I love punk rock and that pretty much turned me on to wanting to do art seriously. Then I just kind of started doing bits and pieces and then I saw the band Boris, the Japanese heavy rock experimental band, with Sunn O))), my friend Steven O'Malley's band. So I saw Boris' first show and that really turned me on to them, and I kind of started digging out on all their records and buying everything from their manager in Japan and I ended up moving over to Japan and working at her label.
Not just for that reason, but that put me deeper into the music world essentially. I expressed interest to do some artwork for them, and what I produced ended up being the tour poster for Boris and Sunn O))) in 2007. I think that kind of set the ball rolling, essentially because it was quite a high profile thing for an underground or unknown artist to get to do illustration work, considering how those bands have now kind of exploded comparatively to that time so that's kind of the beginning of it. Yeah.
KM: Can you talk a little bit about living in Japan? I know some of your artwork seems to have Japanese influences in terms woodcuts. Could you talk about that?
SF: Some people say that there's a very Japanese look. I think it's really kind of a vague statement, but I can see it. I think that my interest is palpable, and that you can tell that there's some inspiration there, and definitely probably more so from the mediums like wood carving. I use Japanese tools, but with lino or Western materials, so kind of somewhere in between the two, to a degree.
SF: Living over there was very interesting. I ended up working in restaurants, as I just like working with my hands. I'm not too picky about what I'm doing creatively. I'd just rather be working hands-on with materials. So working in restaurants in Japan really gave me an insight into the culture in a way that I hadn't anticipated before moving there.
When I came back from Japan I was working as a sushi chef for about five years, so I've also trained with Japanese chefs and have a lot of other kind of skills that I don't utilize anymore, but yeah. Japan is a place I love to be, and I have many friends as a result of being back and forth there. It has always been very welcoming for encouraging my random creative desires. So it's somewhere I actually wish I could be right now.
KM: So you've talked a little bit about how you got your start working in and doing illustrations for albums and things. What other artists have you worked for and how do you deal with the collaborative endeavor? When you're dealing with the band, do you listen to their music or do they give you some ideas of how they want the artwork to look?
SF: It varies every time, but I think I'm quite lucky to be given a really wide gambit about what I want to say, but like pretty much given free reign to present what I would like. In most cases, bands come to me asking for something. They just give me the music. In the case with Lori's album, for instance I just listened to the music and the idea generated in my mind's eye. Same with the Stephen O' Malley & Steve Noble LP, another case in point where they just gave me the sound. I was actually at the gig and they asked if I could do the jacket. In those cases I feel it is a collaboration, because they've just trusted me with the sound and then I just present a pure image that comes to my mind.
In other cases it's more of a diplomatic back and forth, and it can be a band having a strong typographic idea and then that might be the seed of an idea that I will then follow. So I'm quite open. I'd say I'm very open minded and quite generous with not being too precious about what I want to do. Because they're giving me the respect and space to do what I want to do, so I want to make sure everyone's happy. It's quite free flowing and so just kind of sealing their vibe basically and following it.
KM: Would you talk a little bit about your metal esoteric magic style?
SF: I don't think I've kind of seen a homogenous style in my work until the last few years. You kind of start seeing it after say a decade of working, can kind of see it at arm's length to a degree. That is probably also a style that I'll pull out for specific artists, say Lori and Dylan, as I think it really is kind of speaking from a lineage of art style in music. In that respect, and continuing that tradition, I try to bring something new to it, and not just do anything generically metal, but yeah, it's just fun.
SF: For Lori's there's a massive lino cut and it's one of these pieces that I don't really even know fully the final image, so it's kind of a risk taking process but it's definitely got that vibe she asked for. She said she wanted it to be metal.
Yeah, it's cool. It's got that kind of English feeling going on with it. Which is cool.
KM: When I'm painting, when it comes to doing a lot of detail stuff at times my wrist gets a little sore. Your stuff is so complicated. Have you had any tendinitis or any problems?
SF: Right now, essentially, the reason this one's taken so long is in both wrists I'm getting like super cramped in the joint. (Simon moves wrists) There is cracking in my left hand as well. It's just growing pains shooting up both my arms. It is just tendinitis from carving so I just have to take more breaks though and I can't really use wood so much anymore so I use lino, or softer material.
I didn't tend to go to lino first off for relief printing, but it's something I've grown to love more and more. Certainly it's far easier on the arms and regarding the stippling process that I used to employ that was absolutely insane. In retrospect to that level of detail, I can't do that anymore. It's all done. I don't have the physical ability to keep doing that style and also the mental patience. So yeah, it's more like time passing is making me change considerations and my process.
KM: I'm familiar with dry point and linocuts and woodcuts, but I'm wondering if you might be able to try to talk about the process and explain it to the layman a little bit. You know, there's going to be a lot of people that are listening to Lori Goldston's album and they'll look at your work and they're going to wonder how it was made. Could you talk about how you make a linocut?
SF: For Lori's album I started by listening to the music. Obviously the cello is such a resonant and wooden sound. It's got that feeling of a huge tree vibrating and that kind of is the core of the image. This gigantic oak tree for the birds with strings coming from the branches are connecting to the ground, and it's as if the birds are playing the strings and making this resonant machine. It's kind of a string tree instrument, and so that that was the theme that I just saw in my head. Lino in itself is made of resin, cork, bark, and natural material, so it's quite poetic to find material that's also basically of the image that I want to illustrate.
SF: I used a brush pen and just drew directly onto the lino block. I use Japanese chisels, which are very precise little chisels,
to literally carve away around the outside and then inside the lines, articulating the line with a finer chisel. It's a process of erosion, so it's an image in my head and at a point I start seeing it on the page. It's more manifesting on the page than it is trying to get it out of my head. So yeah, it's a purely analog carving process. I roll ink directly onto the lino, and what's carved away becomes the white space on the page. The surface of the lino that remains holds the ink, and that's your image.
So I like it, I like it. it's something that's always interested me. To take as simplistic a process as possible--printmaking is just cutting a surface with a knife--and to try and make an image that when looking at it, you no longer know how it's been made. It's just transporting you somewhere else, and I like that marriage of simplicity and complexity which has always captivated me. With printmaking it can be as complicated as you want, or it could be as simple as you want depending how you think about polarity, negative and positive. I could talk about printmaking for hours if you want.
KM: A lot of the imagery that you use or have used in the past seems almost time-based or post-apocalyptic. The cities seem rundown, or there's rubble, and there's this really geometric work that you do in incorporating circles and lines and a lot of straight edge stuff. Then taking that and going to Lori's album, where it's almost like the cello is a haunting instrument and the tree that you've created with the ravens or crows has a symbolism that's not necessarily positive but all of it seems like it's nature sort of doing its thing.
SF: Thinking about it just abstractly, where I'm living I have an abundance of trees outside and right next to the marshlands and one of the most frequent things I do is walk around in the marshes. We have a huge population of crows and ravens and I think maybe there's a synergy between Lori's album and walking in the area. Feeling that total connection, I think it's really simple, and I think that the crows in the image, if you look carefully at them, are quite playful personalities. They are quite active, you know they're not just menacing and looking foreboding, they're actually plucking and playing the strings and flying around, so I hope there's a sense of motion and nature's fluctuation in the image and that's kind of my what I'm trying to articulate.
I'm just hatching away the sky trying to make the tree more defined. It's getting there, and I think it'll be finished in the next couple of days, but yeah I think my environment for the last year has played into it subconsciously. I've been kind of stuck in the area, and haven't gone beyond about a four mile radius for 12 months. I just can't do anything. There's a big sycamore tree out the window and around this time of year we get a kind of parliament of crows that come in and sit in the tree, about 15 to 20 of them every year, at the same time, roughly the same week. It seems like they have some sort of discussion about territory or something like that, and then go their separate ways. Yeah, I think that's fed into it quite deeply, actually, now that I think about it.
KM: I haven't seen the finished piece because you're working on it, but the way that the birds are playing, I mean crows are intelligent.
SF: Exactly. That's the point I was going to make. Seeing how intelligent they are.
KM: You know they're plucking the strings and in a sense, maybe they hear the internal rhythms of nature better than we do. It's almost like this giant tree is either where they are meeting or it's bringing their whole community together. So they have this secret connection that we as humans would never have.
SF: I think you've just articulated it exactly. It is looking and pondering on what is the architecture you're seeing in front of you beyond what you can see. I think that's a really nice way to put it.
KM: I think that you've done such a nice job tying that to Lori's cello music because music in itself is abstract and it's like we can hear her playing the cello and those tones resonate in a way that we might not necessarily have words for, but it's just an elemental part of nature, just like the crows and their relationship to the tree itself. While looking at your work these past couple of weeks to get ready for this interview, I've just become more and more enamored with how much work you put into it and I just love that level of intensity. I think that comes through with anybody that looks at it. They'll see that you're totally dedicated to your image your image making.
SF: Thank you. As I said, I was hoping to be in Japan around this time, so the only thing I would add is one of my ambitions is to be doing more gallery exhibitions, larger works and more mixed-media work. I'm also making music now and learning about synthesizers and circuitry, just teaching myself electronics. My ambition is to not be pigeonholed into one category. It's nice to talk to another artist. I haven't really had an interview about my artwork for years so it's cool to look at it and think about it in a slightly deeper context.
Lori Goldston's High and Low available now!
Each copy will include a limited edition screen print, hand designed by Simon Fowler and screen printed by Ink Knife Press!