Love and rats: Highlights in Madison album art from 2016

Three artists discuss their work on the covers and packages of notable local releases.

The past year has brought a lot of solid releases from Madison musicians, and with that came some inspired album art. Whether the music itself came out in digital form only or on CD, cassette, or vinyl, it was clear that presentation still matters to a lot of local music artists and their visual collaborators. I asked the people behind three of my favorite Madison album covers of the year to discuss their process and how they interpreted the music their work accompanied.

Wizard, accessorized

The electro-R&B project Mr. Jackson is on the surface a solo outing for singer/producer Ethan Jackson, but he views it as a group effort that also involves engineer Quentin Henning, video director Michael Doyle Olson, and artist/designer Terrence Adeyanju. For both of Mr. Jackson's albums so far, 2014's The Golden Hour Groove Session and this year's Black Gandalf The Unifying Wizard, Adeyanju created not just album art but also playfully elaborate CD digipaks. (The Golden Hour CD came with a sticker that claimed to be edible. Adeyanju wouldn't confirm for me if it was, but said, "Just chase it with some funk, you'll be fine.") The latter is available only on CD.

The Black Gandalf packaging goes a couple steps further. This one also has a sticker on the front, which says "Black Gandalf Loves You!" and inside there's a mini-booklet with typographical designs using phrases from the lyrics. There's also a detachable paper badge that reads "HELLO, my wizard name is _________."

"Ethan and I work closely together on every project from start to finish," Adeyanju says. "Ethan always has a good idea of what he wants—packaging-wise—and he leaves the artwork to me. There is a lot of trust [in] our chaotic creative process."

For the main cover drawing, Adeyanju wanted to evoke the idea of a wizard without being too obvious about it. No capes or staff or what have you.

"I get really confined with a creative process if I have an 'planned' idea. So I draw endlessly until I find something I dig," he says. "But I will say I wanted to stray far a ay from creating a cliche depiction of Black Gandalf and reach for something more symbolic, psychedelic, and cryptic."

Distorted collage

The first of two releases this year from sometimes-solo project, sometimes-band Tippy was a frizzy electronic EP called Public Displays Of Affection. The record was mostly made with synths and an SP-404 sampler, and its mix of contemporary abstraction and analog warmth resonates in artist Mollie Martin's collage-based cover. It depicts a series of contorted nudes on the screens of boxy old TVs.

"A stack of 1970s Playboys had recently fallen into my lap, and I was really excited to use the images," Martin says. "There was one editorial spread featuring a '70s camera lens that distorted its subject, and the result were these weird, kind of spooky images of nude women with their bodies all disfigured. I put the images on an ad for big, boxy TVs, and what I got was the album artwork you see now. Since I was going literal with Public Displays Of Affection, it seemed appropriate that the images were perceived very public—on a television—but were also a little unreal, hence using a warped version of the body."

Appropriately, she says, the Playboys also had ads for old tape players.

Martin has been making a lot of collage art this past year, and showed her work at Drunk Lunch and Good Style Shop. I asked her where the PDA cover art fits into the evolution of her work. "I think my collages have gotten more complicated, especially in process, in the past 6 months," Martin says. "Before, around the time PDA came out, I was simply putting one image on top of another, where the subject had turned into something different. Now, I'm using more texture, creating a more abstract sense of unreality rather than a literal one, and my work has gotten a lot bigger physically."

Oh, rats

No Hoax has taken just over a year to detonate a no-nonsense but refreshing approach to punk, powered by thrashing rhythms and the mighty bellow of vocalist Rachel Kent. The cover of its debut EP, (untitled), released in digital and cassette form, manages to turn grotesque imagery into something graphically catchy. No Hoax drummer/vocalist Ben Brooks and bassist Anthony Moraga drew inspiration from a behavior in which a group of rats intertwine their tails, known as a rat king (don't click that if you're eating something).

"We liked the idea of a rat king over a maze," Brooks says. "There's some really disturbing and solid emotion going on in the concept that we associated with: terminal frustration; multiple entities working against each other by seeking their own escape instead of working together; the 'hoax' aspect of it historically." (Rat kings have long been considered a hoax, though there are some gruesome specimens preserved in museums.) "The maze feels like a good background because it suggests the places this could happen, and also brings to mind rats in a lab, or rats captured and put in this position by powers far outside their control," Brooks adds.

In the second run of cassettes, the rats and maze are screen-printed in black over a purple background. The cassette itself is sparkly and pink, with another two-rat rat king drawn on one side. Brooks says the band is prepping to put out a third run, possibly with an ice-blue background.