Despite a separate inception, the core elements of the band's experience exist as one.
Words by Luis (@HeaviestofArt):
The act of licensing existing photographs and illustrations for a project is not a common one for it can result in a disjointed effort that fails to cohesively deliver. One could argue it runs the risk of yielding a lackluster release formed from a forced collaboration. However, when done right, what comes from licensing an artwork that instantly informs the viewer's creative process is nothing short of wondrous, as Executioner's Mask and their new album Winterlong would suggest. The ambiguous, sci-fi laden art of Atlanta's Dylan Anderson met the ambiguous, hypnotic hymns of the band's latest effort for one multi-faceted listen of freeing nature.
Arriving on June 17th via the always eclectic Profound Lore Records, Winterlong comes forth as an escapade of post-punk, goth rock, and shoegaze capabilities. As it unfolds new layers with each passing listen. audiences are taken to a solemn ground characterized by Dylan Anderson's Secret Societies In Egg Capitals (2021), a grainy depiction of a cloaked figure staring at an orb amidst a portal or larger orb of sorts. Upon listening through the record with art in hand, one can form endless assumptions and connections with the symbolism of Anderson's creative direction, and none would be wrong. Executioner's Mask are every bit intentional about the detail placed upon their work and Winterlong is no exception with Anderson's art being the proper entry point to their sonic trail of liberation. Hell, certain variants of the physical vinyl release include a blotter print, which comes to show the "out of the box" thinking that Executioner's Mask employed. Secret Societies In Egg Capitals and Winterlong may have been created on different timelines, but their ability to coalesce and inform each other's significance is something to strive for.
We go Behind the Cover of Winterlong with Executioner's Mask frontman Jay Gambit and Dylan Anderson to learn of the album's audiovisual synchronicity, the impact of legendary art collective Hipgnosis, the importance of accessibility, genuine partnership, and more:
Jay, the visual direction for 'Winterlong' is quite a departure from ‘Despair Anthems’, but so is the sound. It’s only right that the art reflects that. What inspired your approach this time around and your decision to work with Dylan?
Gambit: I had initially been thinking about a kind of a visual that would represent an other worldliness. There's a number of photographers who had inspired different lyrics and kind of inspired different atmospheres on the album, like Dylan. I'm a fan of what Dylan does. I followed him on Instagram and when I saw the image that is now the cover to 'Winterlong', I just knew that was it. There's this thing with other albums I've worked on where when I saw a picture or an illustration, it just kind of hit my brain, like throwing a pebble down a well. I just went, "Oh okay, this is going to be a thing." I was fortunate enough that Dylan was licensing out the cover image. It was just a matter of setting my notifications on for Dylan's account so that whenever he posted something on Instagram, I would see it before it got licensed by someone else.
That's a perfect segue into a following point, that being the Art Grab platform. It amplifies accessibility in such a great way for people like Jay who are interested in your work. Anyone can head to the website, find something that they connect with in some way, license it, and let it play a new role. Dylan, has the Art Grab platform and licensing your work to external parties allowed you to see your work in a different way? When you're creating some of these pieces, you have a very direct intention in mind, but with having Executioner's Mask introduce and build off of your work in their unique way, it exposes it to a whole new audience. Does that kind of make you realize different things about your art or perhaps show a side to your art that you hadn't realized before?
Anderson: Most definitely. The guys at Art Grab are amazing, Mike (Mckenney), who is the CEO, is out of Utah and I've spoken with him many times. I think his platform has created such a great, diverse community of people and artists who just enjoy it. I mean commission work is great, but you don't really get to do what you always want to do. Art Grab has definitely been an interesting way to approach art because I can just do what I want and hope that it may hit someone in some way. It invokes something in the artist or the person who wants to collaborate and you know, it can further their vision. I'm just kind of throwing my art out there hoping that musicians and other artists will take to it, and it will resonate with them and what they're trying to say with their album. It's exactly like what what Jay was saying. I tried to create something other worldly, I try to create worlds. and if they derive some sort of narrative from that to piece together with their music, I feel like I've done my job and I love that.
I love that art is so subjective and you can kind of take what you will from it and make it your own. Maybe there's something the artist sees in those pieces that I didn't really intend on doing, and they can kind of take it into their own project to inform what it means to them when they see it. It's about what it evokes in them. Album art is just such an important thing to me. It's what I grew up with and it's what I'm influenced by heavily, especially with the bands that I grew up with. That's the first thing you reach for, right? If you haven't heard the music, it's the first thing you reach for. You're literally judging a book by its cover. You want to grab your listener or your future fan, you want to draw them to your album. I feel great that artists even wants to license my work because it's not specific to their liking, you know? It's not their specific design or commission or what they feel they had in mind, they just have to pick from the plethora of licensed images that I have and say, "Yeah, okay, that's the one I want." I feel very fortunate that Jay and his band can look through and choose several of my pieces because it fit their music. I always feel great when that happens.
That's beautifully put. I think you've encapsulated really what the relationship between art and music is all about. It's all subjective and it's really up to the to the eye of the beholder, and you all provide the initial piece to the puzzle. Dylan, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Hipgnosis probably played a key role in your artistic style. Is it far fetched to say that? Or would you cite them as a particular influence? I've been reading Aubrey Powell's 'Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue' (2017) and can't help but find so many commonalities with your work.
Anderson: Actually, I'll probably let Jay speak more to this. I had no recollection or knowledge of Hipgnosis until now actually. I of course have had many different album covers influence me but Hipgnosis are not one of them. I'll have to look into them.
Gambit: Hipgnosis are of course Throbbing Gristle alumni and I come from a world where I love album art and I did album art for people when I was younger. I'm not very good at it, so I don't do it anymore, but I used to back when MySpace allowed people with little talent and few resources to make albums and demos with self-made album covers. But yeah, I was always a fan of things that Hipgnosis did and the ideas they got across, like the 'Tubular Bells' (1973) cover, which is one of those things that's legendary. That's one of the things that goes to show what Dylan mentioned about judging a book by its cover. 'Tubular Bells' wouldn't have been a hit if it didn't have that incredible cover that you immediately think when you close your eyes.
Anderson: If that's what Hipgnosis did, yeah, I'm very familiar with that. I'm sure they have several more I'm familiar with that I just don't recall them doing particularly.
Gambit: 'Atom Heart Mother,' (1970) is another one, and so is 'Dark Side of the Moon' (1973). Basically anything that Pink Floyd did is instantly recognizable. Growing up, maybe the first album cover that I ever saw that made me go "what the fuck" was 'Animals' (1977), which is a legendary Hipgnosis cover. Finding out that it was a photograph and that wasn't just airbrushed in blew my fucking mind. The idea that there can be stories behind album was fascinating to me.
Not Hipgnosis related, but one of my favorite pieces of album art in the world is the triptych on the cover of Manic Street Preachers' 'Holy Bible' (1994). That Jenny Saville piece and the story behind it of her not wanting to do it is the kind of stuff that makes me super interested in the crafting of an album. Getting to read the lyrics and being explained the album, and then her saying that the band can use the art for free...I mean that stuff makes you wonder. How does that relate to the music? How do these How does, you know, your desire to, you know, have that work? Ultimately, those are the stories that are just as important to me as the lyrics or, who did what in a studio. Album art is so important.
Agreed, hence the conversation we're having here today. Going back to the Hipgnosis comparison, I think of 'Elegy' (1971) by The Nice or even Black Sabbath's 'Technical Ecstasy' (1976) when I see Dylan's work. There's a lot to be learned from those classic covers. Shifting gears a bit, where did you find commonality between the painting and the music given that it existed prior to the record's development? You of course went beyond just 'Secret Societies' and utilized more of Dylan's work on the physical release to create one expansive body of art and music coexisting seamlessly.
Gambit: Thank you! When you hear the opening, synth-like ambience of 'Things Fall Apart', that, to me, evokes the same feeling as that cover. In fact, I don't think the painting had a title at first because I bought it so quickly, I don't think you would name it yet, Dylan. If you did, it wasn't posted I believe. Or if it was, I didn't see it because I did not fucking wait a second once I saw the image. I needed this, or else someone will get it. So at that point, it was a matter of kind of looking beyond the title and developing something from the painting itself. There's actually one image in the album's physical package that isn't an illustration from Dylan's, just an illustration from another artist that had a similar kind of other worldliness, which might actually be on the label somewhere in the back cover. It's just a little square.
Beyond the cover, I saw a couple of pieces that I was interested in. One of them was the raindrops. That is the big foldout poster in the vinyl. I was so back and forth on whether or not to use that as the cover instead because even though they're very different, they're effective at what they do. They're almost the same image because they're showing the same thing conceptually. It's almost like if you magnified into one, you would see the other. You know what I mean? That's how I wanted it to be perceived, almost like if you're in another world. If you were ultra zoomed on one of those drops, you would have the orb and inside the orb, there would be the figure and the nucleus. But, of course, that's just crazy shit that's going on inside my fucking skull. It makes sense to me. I started developing this thinking because it was available to license.
The island was very Roger Dean, which all falls into the other worldliness theme. Maybe the big orb on top of the island is the sun and all the other rain drops fell into the ocean or melted and formed the silver layer surrounding the orb. I don't know, it all just makes sense in my head, so I put them all together. When they all were laid out together, it felt like the music. I'm a fan of music and I've been nerdy about enough album covers throughout my 33 years of being alive. I feel like it's kind of like cooking where you have to know how much garlic to throw in versus how much spice to throw in. You have to know what pepper to use too. Do you want to throw a super smoky pepper into the dish or a fresh, sharp pepper? It's the same kind of thing with music and art. It just makes sense to me in that way.
There's so much going on in your head as you listen to it. As much as I like the ease and accessibility of streaming, the act of sitting, listening, and looking at a physical record is unique and special in its own way. Though this is probably an act of reflection of sorts, what informed the creative process and development of the 'Secret Societies' illustration as you completed it last year? For me, it's certainly ambiguous and could be interpreted in a few ways, but at least in terms of your own creative direction for this one, what were you looking at?
Anderson: I mean, most of my pieces that I license out on Art Grab have an intention or a certain feeling I'm going for. They're generally titled when I put them on Instagram, but sometimes I leave it very, very ambiguous. I like the mystery of perception. What has always intrigued me more about album covers is that it's not always directly saying something, whether it's a political message or simply trying to get a point across. There's a mystery there when you leave it ambiguous and leave it up to the interpreter.
With the cover piece in particular, I was just building a world that was abstract. Instead of having Joseph at the gates of heaven or something like that, I liked the thought of having this cloaked figure, waiting for you on some sort of abstract plane as you get basically submerged into this orb and you go to a better place. He's just like the gatekeeper, essentially to another world. I liked the weirdness and the dashed abstract nature of this otherworldly place where you're about to go into another portal. That's how I kind of saw the piece as I was doing it.
I'm glad that Jay has this story in his head about the painting. He sees it as this totally different thing but it still revolves around a connection of worlds. Though some similarities are likely to be drawn when an artist and musician come together, it could just be so open and so broad, so open to interpretation. I like that fact. There's still a foundation and groundwork there that can serve to guide you to a concept you finalize in your own heads. With Executioner's Mask, I'm kind of laying the groundwork and they took it and made it fit within the context of their album and what they're trying to get across. musically. I think that's one of the most awesome parts about what I do with Art Grab over my commission pieces. Granted, I wish I could sell licensed pieces all day, but you know, that's why I tend to price my art grab licenses a little bit lower than my commission rates. I know that a lot of people who come and commission work with me usually want the whole 80s, very saturated color vibe, very, a very playful vibe. They like the very pop culture-esque references and stuff like that. I definitely love the more darker, unsettling feeling about the paintings that kind of feel strange, not in a particularly bad way all the time but more so in a very ambiguous way. When I get to do those and add sci-fi elements and add very abstract and weird elements into my pieces, I get to say what I want to say.
I price my licenses a little bit lower than my commissions because I know that not everybody's going to identify with it. It's not tailored to their specific needs or likings and everything like that, so I try to be considerate. It's been interesting working this way. I've never done it this way before, but I've definitely had a great time, especially with Jay. Since we connected, we've been just going back and forth, I of course thank him and the band for licensing as many images as they have for the release, I'm always appreciative of that. We've talked briefly about commissions, but I always tell him that I'm terribly busy. Hopefully one day we'll get to a place where I can make a solid, specific piece for them.
Gambit: I already have some ideas. For one, I'd like for you to do whatever you want in terms of interpreting whatever a band photo would be. I want it to be however dark or weird you want it to be, but that would be whenever you have the time at some point in the future.
The super fun part about being able to be friends and fans of people who are illustrators, especially on the Instagram scene, is that over the years, I've gotten to know illustrators who I've been big fans of. Just watching them and watching other people appreciate their stuff by licensing and commissioning has been great. Dylan for example has 4AD in his client list. Future Islands licensed some work from you, I'm a huge fan of people in that community, so it's fun for me to see artists and illustrators in this community build legacies that I actually get to be a part of. It's all just super cool to me.
That genuine support and camaraderie is what we need more of. Jay, one has to admire the neat blotter prints that you'll be including in the limited variants of the physical release. How did that come about?
Gambit: It's all connected to what you were saying streaming being a different experience to that of the physical release. There are people who of course don't have the resources to purchase CDs or purchase vinyl, and honestly, there are so many albums, I love so many things, but I just can't buy everything on vinyl, and I'm standing in front of literally 15,000 records right now. For those who are able to pick it up and support the release and the band in that way, it's about being able to provide a separate experience for those people. It's not that people who are listening to the album digitally are getting less of a product, they're just getting a different product.
As a musician, it's known that streaming doesn't pay for anything. We can't exist on it, so there has to be a balance. For me, that balance comes with knowing how to be an artist. What I want as a consumer is more shit for my money. Why should I buy a record over x record? What are you giving me that they're not giving me? In this case, I follow the blotter print scene and I know that the original people who built the movement are still out there. They're still in there and there's really only one true blotter art printer right now. They're the people who printed for Stanley Mouse and Grateful Dead. You never know how long folks who are legends are going to be around, as you can see from the fucking body count every day. I was fortunate enough to be able to make contact and they were able to make the prints for the record. I'm fortunate to have them be part of our legacy as a band. It's a weird, niche craft. I asked Chris (Bruni, Profound Lore Records) to believe in the idea and he was nice enough to not only believe in it, but to go beyond above and beyond in executing it.
Like lenticular covers, seeing efforts like this is truly special. It's unique to see the 'Secret Societies' illustrion in that format. Even though this cover wasn't commissioned and there wasn't a formal collaboration taking place as the illustration was being completed, this conversation between us right now tells me a lot about the respect you have for one another's craft. Musically, you also have contributions from Kennedy Ashlyn, Jake Superchi of Uada, Dylan Walker from Full of Hell, and several more, making this all one communal effort. What role did this camaraderie we speak of play in the entirety of the 'Winterlong' development?
Gambit: I look at music as being a kid sitting in front of a record player with big stacks of records on either side of me. Then, a record label comes to you and says, "Hey, you are able to, with the internet and a modest budget, put together whatever you want with all these incredible people, these incredible talents." Some of these incredible talents are people who have inspired me, you know? It's great to have Jamie (Stewart) from Xiu Xiu remix stuff and Shiv (Mehra) from Deafheaven involved, as well as Dylan Walker, who I've known. for ages. We first played a show together back in 2012 at like a Chinese restaurant in Buffalo, New York. That's how long some of these connections go back. I love Kennedy's voice and I was fortunate enough to be able to make contact with her for this. I don't know Kennedy very well. I think over the time that we collaborated to now, we've had maybe three sentences between each other. Others, like Ryan Schwabe (Oneohtrix Point Never) and I, have known each other longer than I can remember. I've been a fan of their work endlessly. Jake (Superchi) is somebody who I've admired for a long time and he reached out to me after 'Despair Anthems' came out to express his love for the record. I was surprised because like, who am I? I reached out and shared that we had a spot for a solo on this new record that I'd love for him to take on, which is obviously nothing like Ceremonial Castings or Uada. Being as talented as he is, he knew how to make it fit. He appreciates the same things I appreciate. They couldn't get to where they were unless they were a kid in front of a record player with stacks of records on either side of them, going, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life." That's the camaraderie. We're all in this together.
Definitely, and you can tell this was entirely genuine. 'Winterlong' is a real treat from start to finish, all because of how seamless these varying talents and influences come together. In closing, what role do you feel the arts play in the larger scope of the human experience, especially in contemporary times? To me, this entire experience you deliver here is quite freeing. It’s an escape, if you will, which addresses your themes of liberation and self-destruction in these end-times.
Gambit: For me, I kind of have constant reckoning with my thoughts. One day, I'll feel like existence is pointless and I'll truly believe it. The other days, I'll feel the opposite. Emotions are a funny thing. They'll trick you into believing that everything has a point and we're all going to have this legacy that goes on forever and we're all important. What matters are moments. Moments are the individual truths we seek. We choose to spend those individual truths by doing lots of things. Some people create and only find solace in creation. Others find solace in consumption. I'm very fortunate that the only thing I know how to do well is music. I've tried lots and lots of other things and I'm very bad at them. What I know how to do is gather up a bunch of my friends and urge them to use their talents to do something that makes somebody else find their personal truth or help them through their personal truth. The connection of having us all share an experience through guitars, drums, keyboards, or painting is the only meaning I think there really is in life. When we're all dead and gone, those moments are all we have. Those moments and the collection of those moments is ultimately who we are.
Anderson: I think Jay has said it perfectly. I don't know how to follow that, but that's what it's genuinely all about. Going back to what we were saying before about everything that goes into creativity, the arts, and what you said about how important it is to have tangible products to experience, Spotify and those streaming platforms have their place. Accessibility is very important, but it's also very important that we have tangible products, like vinyl pressings in our hands. You're getting more of a whole world, not just the audio but the visual. That plays such an important role in the contemporary world. Any medium outside of the audio experience plays such an important role and I'm glad there are still plenty of people reaching out for those mediums. They create a world that you feel immersed in to take you away. Escapism is so important, especially these days. In a world where we have everything in the palm of our hands, you need that, even in brief moments. Maybe I'm just a fucking luddite, but I think it's really important that the tangible things continue to exist the way they have.
Winterlong arrives June 17th via Profound Lore Records (Pre-Order).