Touching base with the duo's visual mastermind ahead of their impending full-length debut.
Whether it be a film, album, or project in general, there's a free roaming spirit at the heart of every authentic DIY entity. For Brooklyn's Andrew Lanza and Jason Markowitz, that spirit has taken the form of CHAIN GANG GRAVE. This sludge punk unit serves as conduit for homegrown energizing sonics that are driven by a raw lyricism that spans all realms of contemporary sociopolitical world. Their covers are self drawn and their music is self recorded and self mixed. CHAIN GANG GRAVE simply abide by their own rules and come April 16th, their debut full-length Cement Mind will see the light as a testament of their unrestricted and unapologetic approach to delivering a hard-hitting record.
We talk to the band's own Andrew Lanza about the self-drawn artistic messaging conveyed at the forefront of CHAIN GANG GRAVE's Cement Mind:
From ‘When Your Friends Become Cops’ (2014) to ‘We Fight Entropy/Suffer For Your Art’ (2017), you’ve been in charge of Chain Gang Grave’s cover illustrations. ‘Cement Mind’ is no different and features one of your most detailed works yet. Does the task ever pull from your focus on the musical side or do they simply go hand in hand?
Lanza: The only art I did not handle for CGG was “When Your Friends Become Cops”, which was by my friend John De La O, who is quite an accomplished artist. To answer your question, they usually go hand in hand. The most I have been pulled away from the musical side is recently while coming up with animation cells for a video we are working on. That has been very labor intensive.
Could've swore that one was yours too. Thanks for the clarification! As you know, art is political and your work has a unique approach to social commentary, specifically that of government failure, far right politics, and mental illness. What role do you feel that art plays in the contemporary world?
Lanza: Art now, as in the past, should refract, confront, or both. Art in the contemporary world is at once more accessible and more disposable. It exists in people’s lives perhaps more than ever, with the ubiquity of things like Instagram. Art can therefore have a more immediate impact on people’s lives, spurring deep thought or even action. By that same token, art is so ever present that it can just be reduced to the background hum of the every day.
Spot on, and it's amazing how the impact varies from person to person. Though it’s not inherently political, the cover for ‘Cement Mind’ visualizes the hell that goes on in one’s mind, or basically the mental demons that one battles with on the daily. It’s straight to the point and effective, representing the themes present within the record as intended without any need to be overly pretentious. Where did you look to take the cover illustration this time around?
Lanza: The use of miniature demons has been a theme I return to consistently, both in my personal work and for the band. This time around I was interested in showing the aftermath of one of these demons inflicting bodily harm on its unwitting host; basically crossing the plane of the imagined to the physical, with real consequences. Plus I am just a fan of demons in heavy metal and punk artwork, so I was happy to continue the streak.
It's neat to see how you use the demons as symbols throughout the different covers, which of course take on different subjects. Though improvements have been made in the realms of therapy and assistance towards those suffering from depression, it’s still somewhat of a taboo topic to touch on, especially in certain households where there’s a stigma surrounding it. Why do you think that is?
Lanza: Some households retain antiquated, macho critiques of depression; that it’s simply a matter of “manning up” and nothing more. The more some corners of society move to prioritize mental health and remove the stigma associated with addressing it, there is an equal and opposite reaction from other societal elements that seek to re-stigmatize and regress back to outdated modes of coping with mental illness, or more accurately, ignoring the issue altogether.
The mental illness issue is of course correlated with the government failures, given the fact that most of the public services that are aimed to help improve one’s well being are either being defunded or not adequately funded at all. This obviously varies by jurisdiction, but overall, this continues to be the case. Where does ‘Cement Mind’ play a role in continuing this conversation?
Lanza: A lot of the lyrics revolve around getting a grip on one’s mental health, or at least making a conscious decision to cross that bridge to seek help. That said, if help is hard or impossible to come by, that can be devastating, and there’s a larger, societal failing to blame. Issues of the mind should be taken as seriously as physical ones, and the powers that be would be wise to heed that.
Do ideas for the cover illustration come about as the record is being made or after it’s recorded? This definitely varies on each release I’m sure.
Lanza: This one was conceived after recording, though some variation of this idea was always a frontrunner for some future album art. I’ve included a shot of a would-be cover, which will probably be used for a fold out if this album ever gets pressed to vinyl.
Love the alternate use of the demon! About how long did the illustration take to complete and what tools were used in the process?
Lanza: The illustration took many hours and was reworked a couple times. I kept adding elements to it until it felt complete, which was over the period of about a month or so. The OG illustration was done with a ballpoint pen on toned paper. The image was then digitally manipulated in Photoshop, which took quite a while to get right as well.
As a musician and illustrator yourself, how important is it to you to have both components complement each other seamlessly?
Lanza: It’s extremely important. I am very particular when it comes to what images get associated with our music. Good album art contributes to the atmosphere of the music and the artist overall without overshadowing it/them. A perfect example of this, and one I will strive to even approximate for the rest of my life, is artist Raymond Pettibon and his work for Black Flag and SST. The strong, stark visuals he created during that era were a perfect compliment to the music.
Pettibon's art and Black Flag are essentially inseparable and exist as one. Many will come to know of ‘Cement Mind’ through the vibrant visuals you crafted for it. Do you recall a time when an album cover, movie poster, or art piece in general had the impact of introducing you to something you wouldn’t normally pick up?
Lanza: The most recent FKA twigs album, 'Magdalene'. This is an artist who was outside of my usual sphere. I instantly fell in love with the artwork by Matthew Stone, and felt the urge to check out the music. I ended up being smitten by the music as well, broadening my horizons a bit.
Great choice! That's definitely one that made the rounds that year. Chain Gang Grave is truly the epitome of DIY with ‘Cement Mind’ being yet another fantastic self-release that thrives on creative freedom. As you know, there’s so much music coming out on a weekly basis, making it a constant battle for bands to craft something that will catch attention in some way or form, though that shouldn’t be the goal. To those who are debating a self-release or unsure if signing with a label is the best move, what advice would you give?
Lanza: I have only self-released music throughout my life, so that is all I know. Waiting for a label to pick up on what you’re doing can be an exercise in futility and drain a lot of time better spent writing, recording, and releasing what you want. The self-release may prove unwise from a business standpoint, but it is more creatively gratifying. On a related note, if a label is reading and would like to physically release the Chain Gang Grave discography or just “Cement Mind” in particular, hit me up.
Let's hope some label reps get to reading this so we can get that sweet cover painting on vinyl. You know, despite the change in presidential administrations, one could argue that the government will continue to fail, far right politics will remain prevalent in the media and certain parts of the country, and addressing mental illness will remain a challenge. With the strong debut that is ‘Cement Mind’, you aim to convey a message. Come April 16th, what do you hope that audiences take from it all?
Lanza: No matter how dark it gets, personally or in the world at large, do not give up, and always try to be on the right side of history.
Cement Mind arrives on April 18th independently and you can pre-order it digitally HERE.