Spiritualized and Farrow: made for each other

Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce cut several minutes off his album Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space just so that the running time looked better typographically on the packaging. His partnership with designer Mark Farrow has produced some of the finest sleeve design of recent times. CR interviewed the pair of them on the eve of the release of Spiritualized’s new album

Songs in A&E (Universal, 2008): The main format for Spiritualized’s new album will be a typically lavish affair with a 32-page booklet (above) referencing Pierce’s recent illness – a bout of double pneumonia that necessitated a lengthy stay in intensive care and nearly killed him, hence the title, Songs In a&e. The starting point for the design (which was an 18-month process, work in progress shown above) was a set of photographs of Pierce in the icu taken by his girl­friend. Pierce had countless needles coming out of his arms, connected to various drips. He, Farrow and the main designer on the project, Gary Stillwell, were struck by the beauty of these functional objects. “The idea was to elevate them and draw attention to them,” says Farrow. “They are incredible things … on a completely la-la level I love the fact that [in the photographs] they look like pinned insects, they take on a beauty when you see them presented in that way….” The jewel box edition of the album will feature a fold-out poster of the needles on one side with the song titles and other information on the reverse, set in the manner of medical packaging

Type on the cover is in a surgical green with the ® in the Spiritualized logo changed to a +. Despite the references, most of the album was written before Pierce became ill. “Presenting the album as a document of my illness is a slight problem as that isn’t strictly the case,” he says, “but it’s more hinged around the pun of the title, which is too good not to use. I still get people asking me if all the tracks are in the key of A and E though.” Concept, design, direction: Farrow/Spaceman. Photography: John Ross

CR: How did you first start to work together?
JP: Before I worked with Farrow, I did an album called Pure Phase. Even then I wanted to try and get away from the CD jewel case. It was a cheap product in an ill-designed box, the plastic cracked, the spindles broke. People were spending decent money on design but they were putting it behind the cheapest bit of plastic known to man: it seemed like the music wasn’t important. I’d seen Mark’s work for the Pet Shop Boys and thought it was beautiful. It fitted what needed to be done in order to get the music packaged and onto a rack, but it managed to do something different with it.

MF: In the first meeting you said that “music is medicine for the soul” and the idea came from there – that’s the way I remember it.
JP: It was a crazy idea that didn’t fit anyone’s notion of how much to spend on a cover but there was a girl called Juliet Howells at [record label] BMG and she supported it.
MF: There was definitely a spirit around then that you’d find difficult to cultivate now: they were happy to divert some of the money away from the spending on advertising to the packaging…
JP: They also tapped me for it [Pierce ended up part funding the packaging]. Spending more eats into profits but music’s too important to package as a throwaway thing, even though that’s what much of it is. If you make something that’s beautiful and with passion, it has value and it retains that value, and not in a monetary sense…. After Ladies And Gentlemen I had it put in my next contract that we have to work with Farrow and that there has to be a decent spend on the packaging.
MF: Clients that think like that are the ones you actively seek out – that’s why we’ve produced the work we have because Jason’s bothered about it. Ultimately it’s much easier for Jason to push things with the label and life becomes much easier for us … but [to Pierce] you enjoy that process in the same way that you enjoy making music, you involve your­self much more in that than most clients of a design company would, to a fucking annoying degree – that’s not true actually – but you make your music in that way don’t you?
JP: I think you learn more. I don’t mind pursuing blind alleys that have a gem at the end, something that you can take out of it.

Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space (Dedicated, 1997): The first album designed by Farrow for Spiritualized won a host of awards for its pill package design. The idea came from Pierce’s state­ment in the first design meeting that “music is medicine for the soul”. Despite its success, Farrow says that “It has a novelty value to it that bothers me. It’s not a pastiche in as much as the way in which we arrived at the idea and the way we presented it is more of a pun than a pastiche, but I hate both those things.” A special edition (shown above) was produced with each of the 12 tracks on a separate mini CD, but even the standard album was packaged in a blister pack that had to be made at a drugs factory. The outer box illustrates just how committed Pierce is to the design of his sleeves: he actually shaved several minutes off the length of the album so that it would be exactly 70 minutes long, as a round number looked better typographically on the box. Design: Farrow/Spaceman

CR: So where are the sources of friction, where do you tend to disagree?
JP: I don’t know that there are a lot. Right from way back the work was all about purity and accuracy and simplicity.
MF: So on that level we’re obviously completely on the same page.
JP: There are no bits that are superfluous, with any of it. If anything the problems are when we have to use the products that are already made [such as jewel cases].

Let It Come Down (BMG, 2001): Farrow cites this sleeve as his favourite. He had seen the work of sculptor Don Brown at the Sadie Coles hq gallery (a client). Brown’s work centres around his wife and muse, Yoko. At the same time, says Pierce, “I’d been reading some psychology about the workings of the brain and I got interest­ed in the idea that when you see an image of a face that is concave your brain is so used to seeing eyes and noses that stick out that it finds it impossible to read.” So Farrow asked Brown to create a Yoko portrait that could be vacuum formed in bas relief onto a type-less limited edition plastic case (shown above). “Let It Come Down, to me, was a lot more satisfying than Ladies and Gentlemen, even though we didn’t create the image,” says Farrow. “It was almost like product design, we were constantly doing prototypes and so on, and I really enjoyed that process.” Concept and design: Farrow/Spaceman. Sculpture: Yoko by Don Brown, courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ London

CR: But now there is a seemingly inevitable shift towards downloads, is there a future for great music packaging?
MF: We don’t actively pursue music work any more. It’s very difficult to do things in music that are special now, there’s no money being spent on fees or production and I only see it declining. Personally I can see a point where the only way to get music is to download it: there are 12 year-olds out there who don’t see why music should come in packaging.
JP: But downloads aren’t as good quality. Maybe in the mainstream it will go like that but there are labels now that are doing really beautiful pack­aging. I’ve been raving about a label called Mississippi Records. All its sleeves are handmade: sometimes they even stick their artwork over old sleeves from other records. You can see that somebody’s put some work and love into doing them. I don’t know anybody that downloads music, or if they do they tend to do it while they are waiting for the real thing to arrive, and I find that most kids that I know are buying records, they’re buying vinyl, but the business of record companies is motivated by profit. They got lucky with CDs. The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, you name it, they could sell the whole catalogue again to people who already had it, so their profits went up a thousand fold. Now they’re not making that kind of profit everybody is saying the future of music  is looking desperate but no it’s not, it’s looking exactly like it was before. Maybe you’re not selling 200,000 seven-inch singles in a week anymore but people are still buying music…. The packaging is the first point of contact with anybody who doesn’t know what your album is about so, in an odd way, it’s as important as the content.

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MF: It’s the presentation of the content: it’s nice of you to say so but it’s not as important as the content.
JP: But I don’t come in here thinking it’s not.
MF: To you personally the way your album is packaged is as important as the album, but you’re rare in thinking that.
JP: It’s like owning a copy of a book: would you rather own a William Faulkner that’s in its original dust jacket by whoever designed it at that period of time and thought that was the way that this thing should be presented or some kind of modern retake? I loathe re-editions where they redesign the sleeves to make them more contemporary because they are part of the period within which the work was presented. They are as much about where you are and what you’re doing as the content.

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The Complete Works…. (Spaceman, 2003/2004): “These are almost sub-albums, but we still managed something relatively special,” says Farrow. The compilations were “the most minimal piece of packaging we’ve done. The type in the centre of the CDs (shown above) was printed backwards in grey, then overprinted in white,” he explains. “This obscured the type when you looked at the printed side of the disc but it could be read through the disc when viewed from the playing side. We did this because we wanted this package to be as minimal and pure as possible which meant no text on the discs, just a colour bar to show which disc was which, but the copy is a legal requirement and has to be on there. Once the card sleeve is removed you are left with a white box containing two white discs each containing a coloured line which corresponds with the track listing on the card outer. The people at the record company think you’re mad but these are the things worth fighting for,” Farrow insists. “Most people wouldn’t bother but there’s almost as much joy at achieving that as there is in Ladies and Gentlemen.” Complete Works Volume One and Two: Design and direction: Farrow/Spaceman. Photographs: John Ross

CR: Looking back on the body of work that you have done together, is there one that you are less happy with than the others, one that didn’t work?
MF: I could honestly say that there’s not one that I’m unhappy with and I can’t say that about any­thing else I’ve done. Even with the compilation albums we did something relatively special. You’re just battling against someone in a production department who doesn’t give a fuck, who’s just going “no, you can’t do that”, so it’s a different battle­ground each time if you like.

Sleeve for Amazing

JP: This is a non-committal answer but the record business has got a huge time delay on it so when you present the record to someboody, what you’re really saying is that I had some thoughts I wanted to put down about two years ago and here they are now, so it’s really hard to get perspective on things.

I think they’re all absolutely amazing in their own right and yet people really loved Ladies and Gentlemen. Perhaps because it was picked up so widely in the press it got pulled out from the rest as if to say ‘this is the good one’. It’s great but it’s no better than Amazing Grace which is more simple and more direct, more evocative.

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Amazing Grace (Sanctuary, 2003): “We’d found [photographer] William Selden, and loved his portraits,” says Farrow. “We toyed with the idea of a family portrait of Jason and his kids and his girlfriend but he became uncomfortable with that. We didn’t go into the shoot with the idea of photographing his arm, but I just got Jason to do it. He got the references straightaway – needles, crucifixion, holding the chord on a guitar – it was perfectly on-brand for Spiritualized.” Design, concept, direction: Farrow/Spaceman. Photographs: William Selden

CR: So of all the Spiritualized album sleeves, which one is your favourite?
JP: Pure Phase.
MF: Thanks Jason. You should put that in, it’d be a good last sentence.


This article is featured in the May issue of Creative Review, out on 24 April. Spiritualized’s new album, Songs in A&E is released on 26 May on Universal Records

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  • Sylvia 25/11/2010 at 12:34 am

    I agree– I think it would be so awesome for them to go on tour with an orchestra.. I know it’s so expensive, but it would be so amazing to see them in concert with an orchestra. I’d have to go to at least three of the shows.

    -Sylvia
    Phoenix Art Gallery

  • Peter 02/07/2008 at 10:11 pm

    There’s a microsite up for the new spiritualized album as well with pretty cool video stuff.

    http://www.spiritualizedharmonies.com

  • Martin Kann 28/05/2008 at 7:51 am

    I have always been very inspired by Farrow/Spiritualized. Especially when I designed the cover for Bergman Rock in 2003. It was almost like a tribute to them. Intersting similarities to “Songs In A&E”. Like a full circle.
    Check it out:
    http://www.martinkann.com/pages/design.html

  • drugshovel 17/05/2008 at 7:20 pm

    Love the interview. Very informative. Been listening to Spiritualized since the beginning. And it’s nice to know the history of each records design. Thanks.

  • Carl P. 10/05/2008 at 1:26 am

    Spiritualized albums are always an exciting prospect, and the album covers are a huge part of that – they are up there with the greatest album covers of all time, right alongside ‘Sgt Pepper’ or ‘Sticky Fingers’ – provocative, engaging, and I personally love the sense of restrained minimalism about them all. They feel special.

    It’s great to have that excitement back in record shops. The Mp3 is dead, long live the CD!

    I have all of the Spiritualized albums and I am sincerely looking forward to this one joining the collection.

    Welcome back Jason! You’ve been missed!

  • Andi 30/04/2008 at 4:13 pm

    Great artwork and packaging, but WHAT A BAND. Hopefully they’ll tour with an orchestra this summer.

  • a lawless 29/04/2008 at 1:49 pm

    insightful interview.j spaceman continuously raises the bar not just for for others,but himself included.
    it’s good to know that there’s people who still actually care about music in these times of manufactured dross.i’ll hum some spiritualized tunes now and i suggest you go buy the albums so you can too ed.

  • T 28/04/2008 at 12:41 am

    Brilliant. I cannot wait for their new record.

  • J Spacecat 24/04/2008 at 7:51 pm

    Great interview. Great band. Great artist.

  • Simon 24/04/2008 at 1:00 pm

    “I can’t…hum a single Spiritualized song”

    I’m pretty sure you can hum all of them.

  • Ed Wright 24/04/2008 at 11:39 am

    It’s just occurred to me that I can’t name or hum a single Spiritualized song, but I know and love all their graphics. Great stuff.

  • Edward Lamb 24/04/2008 at 9:54 am

    I have very fond memories of being a 17 year old boy, unpacking Ladies and gentleman we are floating in space on the bus after buying it.

    A part of me wishes that I’d never opened it now, as it lies alongside all of my jewel case CD’s battered and deformed.

  • Gregg 23/04/2008 at 11:29 pm

    Great Article! These guys get what music is supposed to be all about! A total experience!

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