Serious Fun with Diagonal Records

Electronic music can be a straight-faced business, but there’s a refreshingly playful edge to the artwork Guy Featherstone creates for Diagonal Records, the label co-founded by musician Oscar Powell. Here the pair discuss their approach and reveal how it has transferred to Powell’s new home at XL

Diagonal Records prides itself on existing “on the fringe of music for freaks and weirdos”, according to its creative director Guy Featherstone – and since its founding in 2011 by Oscar Powell and Jaime Williams, it has been packaging its releases accordingly. Powell initially launched the label to release his own music – he signed to XL in 2015, bringing out debut album Sport this year – and continues to work with Featherstone, who is also creative design director at Wieden + Kennedy Portland, on the look and feel of Diagonal’s eclectic roster.

The musicians on the label reflect a range of styles, from the multidisciplinary approach of artist Russell Haswell, to the post-punk inflections of Not Waving, via Powell’s own visceral take on dance music. Following a show at TBA Brooklyn in New York, Powell and Featherstone met up to discuss their intimate working relationship, how they’ve forged a visual attitude for Diagonal (and an identity for Powell) that aligns brilliantly with the music – and why reflecting the sheer joy of sound is as vital now as ever.

Oscar Powell: So when we began working together on Diagonal stuff, it started with you helping me out with my half-baked ideas, basically.

Guy Featherstone: I don’t think it felt serious or real from either of us, but there was a sense of trying to establish a vision for the label. I think Shit and Shine’s first 12” (Diagonal 004) was the first time it really felt serious. The approach was simple. In terms of trying to distil it down, find some edges for the brand, and set up a bit of a system, that was where it started. That was the first time we introduced a bit of the irreverence and playfulness to the tone of the brand, a bit of the clowning.

Elon Katz, The Human Pet LP, 2016 (DIAG029). Photography: Katie Miller (front) and Alex Gitman (back)
Elon Katz, The Human Pet LP, 2016 (DIAG029). Photography: Katie Miller (front) and Alex Gitman (back)

OP: I should make clear that first of all things came from me making my own music – and having this idea that dance music could be provocative and challenging, but also playful and fun. Not taking yourself too seriously, but also being serious about what you do. That’s how I felt about my own music and we talked about how we could get that attitude into the designs.

GF: My passion was largely associated with the idea that serious music demands serious art – and a serious tactile experience to accompany the sound. I look back at that Shit and Shine release – the yellow, PMS803. I love the way that that colour dries up on an uncoated stock, it’s like a super vibrant cadmium. I feel colour plays a critical role in establishing an identity for the label, it helps introduce and inform some of the joy, the levity and the spirit of club music, when dance music was largely purveyed through….

OP: Acid?! It’s one of my favourite words! Colour-wise and music-wise. It’s a great word – all our covers have a certain ‘acidity’.

GF: They have a ‘wildness’. There’s a spirit to those colours and something very evocative in terms of what they do to the retina. They make your eye buzz a little bit, which is fun, vibrant and poppy.

Acid?! It’s one of my favourite words! Colour-wise and music-wise. It’s a great word – all our covers have a certain ‘acidity’

OP: So how does the process work? We’d have a new record and somehow I’d get it into a brief and get the artist to express what they think the record’s about?

GF: I think originally that wasn’t so much the case. Then, we’d just talk amongst ourselves. I’d examine the music and try to work out, almost through a process of synaesthesia really, what does that sound ‘feel’ like? What does it look like? And it’s not just the sound, it’s the ‘experience’ of listening to that music. How can I visualise that sonic terrain? We didn’t really get into briefs until probably the work with Russell Haswell.

OP: This is Diagonal 007 (pictured above) – probably my favourite cover we did. Russ is a conceptual artist straddling fine art, curation, subversive noise music. So it’s always interesting.

GF: It’s probably my favourite cover as well. The process of working with Russ went back to the most traditional way of working with artists in the music industry. It started out with a conversation in a small meeting room at work, we did a Skype. I remember he had his modular synth set up and he played a few sounds on it and talked about how much he detested the aesthetic associated with the music he makes – that comes out of the ‘noise’ environment. He wanted to be really disruptive and change the lens of that environment – and he pretty much gave me free rein. That’s probably one of my favourite sleeves for several reasons: the colour combination is timeless – black, red, white – but putting that ‘toothpaste’ [colour] with it just fused it. It seemed appropriate for the sound.

OP: But then most of the artists who have musical visions, they have ideas about visuals as well, right? So how do you work with artists who obviously want to say their own things?

GF: The one thing that Russ was pointed on was whilst he was prescriptive, articulate, eloquent in how he wanted to ‘disrupt’, he was also very specific in terms of a typeface he wanted. He was very specific about using Isonorm, a Monospaced type – ‘I’d like you to use it small, in a delicate way’. And without sounding like I’m disparaging Russ, a lot of the [artists in the] genre that he’s classified in do use small Monospaced typefaces!

It was a bit of a tension point for me, but I listened to the music [37 Minutes] with a piece of graph paper and some coloured pens [and] was making marks on the paper that denoted a rhythm. I ended up with a kind of random scribble of dots and lines, hashes and crosses all representing the different instruments I was listening to. The sketch started to resemble something that looked like what I was hearing. This was all then connected with thread, to try and bind more of an idea to the composition – if you look at a clock and dial the hand around to 37 minutes; every line or angle has been constructed through a 37 minute degree.

That was good fun. Martin Weigel, the Wieden + Kennedy planner, said this really interesting thing about getting used to ‘playing to live to audiences’ as opposed to creating ‘the perfect studio album’ – I love that philosophy and applying it to some of the stuff we do. Let’s not be too precious about it: when it’s too meticulous, infused with utter perfection, you start to lose a bit of the fun.

Green Gums, Black Tongue EP, 2015 (DIAG020). Artwork by Guy Featherstone
Green Gums, Black Tongue EP, 2015 (DIAG020)

OP: I guess there’s something magical about working on music – you can craft your own label in the image you want. As a musician, people often write about my influences, what informs the music – do you feel like you have influences that inform the way you work on Diagonal and Powell stuff as well?

GF: Absolutely. It’s a combination of things, ultimately I feel like it can be anything. I sound like a hippy when I say this out loud, but I can see a piece of litter blowing down the street and the colours in it might mean I have to stop and take a picture of it. And that’ll get saved away into the databank, I’ll push that into a ‘Diagonal’ folder. All of the music we put out on the label is rooted in club music, it’s digitally manifested, so much of my approach and inspirations come from a number of different worlds and then I attempt to make them feel like they’ve all been generated by a computer.

Punk is another large aspect of the label, which is why I often try to fuse different worlds together: fashion, patterns, colour systems, graffiti all play an important and influential role in the work. I’m a purist at heart and I feel that one of the defining values for the aesthetic of the label is firmly rooted in typography, [which is] the most powerful component in great graphic design. Possibly the greatest influence to me would have to be Wim Crouwel, from type to grids to form, balance etc.

Not Waving, Animals LP, 2016 (DIAG025). Artwork by Guy Featherstone
Not Waving, Animals LP, 2016 (DIAG025)

OP: You’re pretty sick on grids! No stones left unturned!

GF: I start everything with a grid. Kim Papworth [at W+K] always said that rules are there to be broken. So starting with rules is really good – but then break them. I love the analogy of setting the perfect table, positioning everything by place – and every place is informed by a position on the grid. Then it’s almost like someone comes past and accidentally knocks the table – and a few cups and saucers, a knife and fork go slightly off. That beautiful/ugly thing, that tension is what we’re always trying to get; that’s some of the physics through which I always try and apply my work.

Sport LP, artwork by Guy Featherstone
Powell, Sport, XL, 2016

OP: Typographically, the biggest type thing we’ve done was the ‘Powell’ logo. But it was never conceived as a logo really was it?

GF: No. At the time, I was living in Brighton and commuting to London every day on the train and I was trying to apply a discipline; to never spend more than three journeys conceiving and designing a sleeve. I went hell bent on trying to define a response to the conversation we’d had about executing the Club Music sleeve in a typographic way. I was pushing it around the screen, but it wasn’t really connecting.

It’s a bit of a problem about the way we work today really. We often make mistakes in going straight to the computer, instead of thinking more. So I closed the laptop and got my sketchbook out and starting writing ‘Powell’ all over the page in pencil; not rendering with any typographic vision in my head, just literally writing your name. And I remember doing a ‘down rocker’, where I wrote each character under the other, a vertical stack of characters. And when I was rendering the second L after the first one, I was like, wait….

Powell, Club Music, 2014. Artwork by Guy Featherstone
Powell, Club Music, 2014 (DIAG009), the release that introduced the ‘Powell’ character

OP: He’s got legs!

GF: And that was it! I remember having it pretty much done within 10 minutes and being reasonably happy.

OP: This year [2016] was the year he really came to life, because we had the album I was calling ‘Sport’ [and] we’d already explored the idea of colour around it. It suddenly became not so much a logo but a character. But we never set out to create that.

GF: On the reverse side of Club Music he was dancing to lasers – he’s since been cycling, rowing and doing archery, equestrian, swimming, hurdles. If you remember, after Club Music I was trying to play with him in a 3D sense and never really landed it. I feel like I want to take him 3D now. We did create some laser-cut acrylic versions of him to brand the [Steve] Albini XL billboard and some little guys for you to take to live gigs.

OP: I think I should say something about logos for musicians in general. Using him as a logo, it can start to feel a bit uncomfortable. The moment you ‘brand’ yourself, maybe you’ve got an inflated sense of who you are? I was a musician barely selling 500 records a pop. But the thing with the Powell guy is that whenever you show him to someone, it makes them feel something. It’s just fun. I got quite comfortable with it in the end. It’s not a traditional thing for an underground musician to do, but I think it’s been pretty effective.

GF: For me, some of the humility to it comes through the posture of how you’ve been characterised. You’re a walking beanpole – you’re 6 ft 5 – so the reason I adjusted the ‘P’ so that it’s slightly nodded down, is because my image of you when I see you in a dingy club, you’re lowering your head so you don’t bang it on things! So some of the character in the posture suggests that you don’t take it that seriously. It feels a bit silly. You should say something about the billboards.

The campaign for Powell’s debut album Sport on XL
The campaign for Powell’s debut album Sport on XL saw his email address featured on billboards in London and New York (shown here). Anyone could email him to find out more about the forthcoming release – they received a response from the musician himself

OP: People say billboards have to do certain things: big type, not many words. We had one single poster and wanted to use it as a trigger point, a way of sparking something. You don’t need to spend much on a poster campaign, you just need to choose one site and say something that’s interesting. I never understood, in my limited experience of brands, why they don’t employ similar tactics to be honest. It’s a simple mechanism.

[For] the Steve Albini one – I got this email [in reply to requesting sampling his shouted intro to a live Big Black track] and thought it was hilarious – pretty much what I thought about the state of music. And it sparked a huge conversation about punk vs electronic music, old vs new. No-one got where I stood on it, but the irony of it was that I was on Steve’s side really.

Prior to running his own email address on a billboard, Powell used the copy of an email he received from Steve Albini (in reply to a request to sample a live Big Black track) on a poster site in London. Note the XL sticker on the street sign, left, and the Powell figure on the poster’s frame)

With the email address one – I have fun thinking about these things because I like to try and reflect the music in the way I talk about it – in an interview or whatever – so rather than just sending out a press release saying I’m about to do a new record, I thought it would be cool if I asked anyone who would actually give a shit to come and speak to me directly about whatever they wanted. I ended up having some mad conversations with people. It was a beautiful thing in the end. I never thought of it as marketing. You work with a label like XL, of course they’ve got a budget – so how can I have fun with this?

Not Waving, Get Serious, 2016 (DIAG026), single-sided 12” housed in paper bag. Photograph: Katie at Boomka
Not Waving, Get Serious, 2016 (DIAG026), single-sided 12” housed in paper bag. Photograph: Katie at Boomkat

GF: It’s starting a conversation, ultimately, right? I love it when you start a fire like that and walk away from it just to see how it burns. And it went berserk. We’ve spoken about this before – about the future of how you align the experience and feeling [in the] art direction and how you try and bring that fun and that energy, that wildness, that provocativeness, that cutting edged-ness to the brand. The biggest challenge going forward is how we package or present music that sits on a digital framework. I’m super excited about that.

OP: The nature of the distribution of music [is] always changing, and yet a lot of people just stick to putting out records. And I love records, but I don’t think we’ve properly explored the delivery of music in an interesting way yet. There’s such a monopoly over the way people consume music these days.

GF: If I can wave a white flag here, because we’re part of the industry, but I feel like you’ve got to give 100% or you’re just taking up room. I feel we’re responsible for trying to define some of this, to change it and influence some of the experiences that people might have going forward. So, what’s your favourite Diagonal sleeve?

OP: I think probably Russell’s 37 Minute Workout or Powell Club Music because it was so exciting to see it all brought to life like that. [Speaks into mic] The thing with Guy’s stuff is you give him a brief and he says he’s going to look at something and he’s got these rough ideas – and then what he sends you is 15 times better than what you’d expect. So that’s why I try and look after him. And occasionally buy him dinner.


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